What are you being asked by companies for advice on? Do they just want to reduce the amount of space they occupy?
Usually, they know they have more office space than they will need in the future, but they don’t know what the space they’re going to use should look like. Our job is to present the future of work and to start a discussion with their employees because change management is a huge issue. We work with specialist companies to develop change management plans. This starts at the board level where we start discussing what it could look like.

How do you begin those discussions? Is there a sort of formula you use or do you always begin with a blank slate?
Every company needs space in their offices for connections, for collaboration, for concentration and for inspiration. These are the standard zones which every company should have, but of course each company is different. We need to get to know the workstyle of the team, what they need, if they need more space for focus work or if they need more zones for connections. Are they innovative or are they conservative? In the past, it was normal to have a lot of space for focus work. But we know that in the future a lot of work will be done remotely and that one of the main reasons for offices will be for connecting with and meeting people.

T-Mobile offices (Photo: Alexander_Dobrovodsky)

The previous buzzword you used to hear quite a bit was hotdesking and then flex space that would allow everyone to sit anywhere they wanted. Why isn’t that working?
With desk sharing, it’s just open space. You just chose whether to work in one place or another space, but there’s no added value. It’s just open space. With the agile, activity-based workplace, you don’t have your own desk but you have a lot of types of choices of places to work, including closed offices for focus work. You can have collaboration space for example for pairing programming, which is really necessary for developing companies or else bigger zones for non-formal collaboration by teams.

In the workplace concept we place teams in the same neighborhood, so people share space with their teams, not with everyone in the company. We introduced this concept of neighborhoods of 20 or so people in T-Mobile Czech Republic. We’re thinking about the space as team zones — places where related groups of people can collaborate. Each team has their own dedicated spot where they should be most of the time when they’re in their office. But it’s also necessary to create space for cross-team collaboration. People have to be able to switch to other zones. In this time of agile project management, it’s crucial because we are switching from a traditional hierarchy to a knowledge-based hierarchy.

T-Mobile offices (Photo: Alexander_Dobrovodsky)

So, you have to adapt the space to reflect that change. Can you explain the difference?
It’s much more like a web. You could have someone who is assigned to a project team but who spends most of his time as a member of an agile development team. That means he needs to stay informed about that development team, but he also needs information about this project team.

The same way you might be in several Facebook groups, for example.
That’s a good comparison. It makes it really hard to create exact boundaries that determine that you should sit just here because you are part of the financial department. Companies are giving people much more freedom to get involved in other projects. Sometimes you need to sit down with certain colleagues for a whole day to cooperate with them. This is the future in which we won’t be connected to just one seat but it will be much more like co-working.

New types of hierarchy and models of leadership will be empowering for some employees, but threatening for others.
It’s necessary to discuss this with middle management and to bring in experts on change management. Because in the past it was normal that the more important you were in the company, the bigger your office would get. Nowadays, it’s not the reason people are working; they have different values. We’re working with companies that are moving beyond the old mindset where people need a big desk and a big car. Those smaller offices should be used by other employees because the occupancy rates of those offices tend to be low anyway because the managers are travelling a lot. But this has to start with a discussion with management about what benefits will replace individual offices.

And when companies are implementing a new concept, it’s necessary for management to lead by example. It can’t be that they get their own office while other employees work on a flexible concept. That doesn’t work. It must be for everyone. This is the way to change middle managers but to succeed, it’s necessary to have strong leaders. Because change is never easy for people.

In the future then, you think most companies need less space?
Yes. A lot of companies who didn’t support home office before now see that it can work. So, the occupancy of offices was already going to be lower than it was before. Even before Covid, if you measured the occupancy of offices, it was normal for it to be only around 40%.  You’d have people on vacation, on sick leave, or in meetings or travelling. Sometimes we’d measure the passive occupancy of a desk and it was usually about 30%. I’ve done those measurements myself. I’ve seen how people go into the office, they put their jacket down and then they leave for a bunch of meetings. Desks are being used a place to put for personal belongings and then there’s all the other space in those individual offices. You can replace that with big wardrobes for clothes and lockers where women can put their shoes. You can save a lot of space just by giving people other ways to put their things.

Apolena Weissová has been a Workplace Consultant at Capexus since 2019. She’s taken part in formulating workplace strategies for companies like Productboard, T-Mobile, Johnson & Johnson and KPMG. She’s graduated from the construction faculty at ČVUT in Prague.

 

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