Tips from the UK’s first ‘chief workplace officer’ on workplace design

VanessaChampion.co.uk

With 15 years of experience of creating optimal wellbeing workplaces, Simone Fenton-Jarvis is the first known ‘chief workplace officer’ in the UK and one of the youngest practitioners to be awarded ‘fellowship’ status from the Institute of Workplace Facilities Management. So, who better to ask for practical tips around creating a workplace that works for wellbeing in a hybrid world?

Here are her top tips to remember when planning your post-pandemic workplace:

1. Don’t dive into the pretty fixtures and fittings before you’ve done the hard work around culture.

We know it’s exciting to design a new office and many companies are currently doing this, but Simone Fenton-Jarvis’s key message is crystal clear:

“Remember it’s not about the physical space per se: a lot of good workplace design for wellbeing is about the culture. The culture of the organisation has to be right at the core before we start focusing on the nice physical fixtures at the top of the workplace design iceberg.”

2. Don’t make assumptions about the culture based on your personal perception of it – ask your employees; do your research thoroughly around how the workspace is currently actually being used and why.

“Look at why people go to your workplace and then look at how they behave and what tasks they’re doing day to day. What are the neurodivergent employees saying? What are the introverts experiencing and saying, compared to the extroverts?”

As well as observation and surveys, this should ideally involve speaking to employees on a one-to-one basis too, and potentially team workshops, about their desires and intentions. “Dig deep and find out why they want to work like that,” she says. “When we understand their reasons, that’s when we can start creating a workplace that works for the majority, not the minority.”

3. Use the handy ‘6Cs formula’.

Fenton-Jarvis has created this formula to help employers identify the different types of spaces they have, and where there might be gaps in the new hybrid workplace. These are: collaboration, contemplation, concentration, creativity, curiosity, and communication.

“If you use the 6Cs, for example, you’ll realise that a purely open plan office isn’t for concentrating, it’s for collaboration; alternative spaces need to be provided like phone booths, meeting rooms, collaboration booths, outdoor seating.”

One of the biggest assumptions that Fenton-Jarvis sees in her consultancy work is assuming that workers that come into the office are coming to collaborate. On the back of this assumption, she’s witnessed many companies removing all the desks and replacing them with Zoom rooms and collaboration spaces.

“That’s not going to work for everybody,” she says. “Some people don’t have spaces where they can concentrate at home, for many reasons, so they might want to go to the office to concentrate, so you have to accommodate that too.”

4. Don’t pigeonhole employees together.

Another mistake that Fenton-Jarvis commonly sees is employers pigeon-holing employees by generation. She urges: “Don’t go down the stereotypical thinking route of ‘this is what Gen Z wants to do’ or ‘this is what Millennials want compared to Baby-boomers’. Take an individual point of view.”

5. Consider writing a workplace etiquette guide.

“There is definitely a new workplace etiquette in this new world of hybrid working,” she says. “It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to work with other people and be with other people. And that’s not just in the workplace, it’s across society too.”

One of the bugbears she keeps hearing from employees now returning to the office is how loud the open plan office is with multiple video meetings going on simultaneously.

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She reports from her one to ones with employees that some are “going insane” at their colleagues conducting loud, large video calls in the open plan office “as if they’re kicking back in Costa”.

“Pre-Covid there were always people in the office that were speaking loudly, but now it’s like everyone’s doing it,” she says.

As well as creating a workplace etiquette guide, Fenton-Jarvis also suggests creating a etiquette guide for meetings specifically, too, which you can access on her website here.

6. Don’t just copy the competition when it comes to deciding how/when your workspace will be used.

Fenton-Jarvis has seen this numerous times where a company will say ‘Oh, we’re going to go down the route of 2 days in the office because that’s what everybody else is doing’.

“You’ve got to think about what works don’t just copy the competition because you read about it on LinkedIn. Do this by looking at what your people are doing, the tasks and who they’re doing them with, then decide on where they should do these.”

7. Don’t implement change TO people, it’s got to be done WITH people.

She stresses that employees will buy-in to the new set-up much more if they’ve been involved in its evolution.

“People have to have a say in what’s happening next. Otherwise they will just rebel. That’s human nature.”

8. Don’t fall into the trap of having senior leaders predominantly work at home and junior managers in the office.

 This is another common scenario that she’s seen and cautions against. One of the biggest dangers here is that leaders get a skewed view of the new workplace (tending to think most people are at home like them).

“Senior executives often tell me they want to reduce the workspace area because so many employees are now working from home. I challenge: is that a data driven decision? Or is that because the senior management are sat at home thinking nobody’s in the office?”

Another danger of this scenario is that younger workers don’t get that vital contact with senior leadership for their development.

“I don’t mean that they don’t get to showcase their work in front of leaders. I mean they don’t get those opportunities to pass them in the corridor and just say hello and have that connection. There’s a lot to be said for seeing people in the flesh and making eye contact.”

9. Don’t just tick boxes, be genuine in your desire to create a workplace that really works.

As an example of ‘tick boxing’, she gives the number of employers creating ‘prayer rooms’ in the office in a bid to do the ‘right’ thing in supporting religious colleagues.

However, many of these have been created without fitting the right facilities nearby for people to wash before they pray, which is an essential part of the ritual for many.

Another example she’s seen is creating a mother and baby room for breast feeding but failing to put a fridge in it.

“Things like this are coming up in my conversations all the time where employers have ticked a box, because they’ve created a room, but the employees are saying ‘but they didn’t ask us, they didn’t ask what we actually needed in that space’.”

Fenton-Jarvis doesn’t want to put employers off from considering potentially valuable spaces like gender neutral bathrooms, prayer rooms and mother & baby rooms, which are all topical right now, but she urges: “If there’s a genuine need, do it! But make sure you ask your people. So much of this comes down to assumptions.”

10. Consider implementing technology which allows employees to see when other colleagues are intending to be in the office.

“I also hear from employees a lot that they’ve made the effort to get into the office and just commuted for over an hour, but there’s nobody in.”

She recommends people coordination tools like Kadence where employees can who is intending to work in the office and they can set up alerts to notify them if particular colleagues are in. As Fenton-Jarvis says those casual watercooler conversations employees have at work often can give us a wellbeing boost too.

11. Ensure you are involving HR, facilities management and IT at the centre of your workplace design.

Fenton-Jarvis calls this the “Golden Triangle” because it ensures that the space, people and technology are all covered. “If one of these disciplines is missing, there’s going to be a problem”.

Simone Fenton-Jarvis is author of The Human-Centric Workplace – Resources including the workplace etiquette can be accessed via www.thehuman-centricworkplace.com

 

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