How office design can help elephants and smaller beasts to dance

office design

The challenge for most large organisations nowadays is often likened to being something akin to making an elephant dance. This metaphor has become a bit of a cliché in its own right since the American businessman Louis Gerstner used it as the title of his memoir describing how he had turned round the fortunes of IBM in the 1990s. It all boils down to how organisations can stay ahead of the curve in a world in which innovation is not only relentless but which can spring from unexpected and external sources such as changes in the economy and government policy. And, of course there’s nothing quite like a harsh economic climate to drive innovation. The pressure on budgets across the economy in general and the public sector in particular is driving a revolution in the way property is procured, designed and managed in the UK.

What is fascinating is to see how this is manifesting itself, especially in terms of office design and management. The public sector for example is looking at revolutionary new ways of sharing property across departments and functions. At Central Government level this has led to the Department for Communities and Local Government moving in with the Home Office while across the UK local authorities are signing up to the One Public Sector Estate scheme which will see many departments share buildings while councils sell off the buildings and land freed up.The scheme now incorporates around three quarters of all UK local authorities.

In February, the UK government announced that it had reduced the public sector property estate by over 300,000 square metres delivering savings of £176 million in the last financial year, according to the latest State of the Estate report from the Cabinet Office. Speaking at the 2017 Government Property Conference, Minister for the Constitution Chris Skidmore announced that since 2010, rationalisation of the estate has reduced its size by a quarter, delivering over £1 billion in running costs. The sale of surplus properties, including Admiralty Arch (pictured) and the Old War Office, resulted in a further £1 billion in capital receipts in 2015-16 – a notable step towards the pledge to deliver £5 billion in receipts by 2020. The report shows that vacant space within the central government estate now only represents 1.4 percent – well below the average in the private sector of 8.9 percent.

This is not just about divestment. Last year, the business standards company BSI working with the Cabinet Office launched a new code of practice on Smart Working. The Smart Working Code of Practice, BSI Publicly Available Specification (PAS3000) has been designed to support organisations in implementing smart working principles. The Cabinet Office sponsors it on behalf of the Smart Working Charter Steering Group of industry, academia, institutions and other public sector bodies. According to the Cabinet Office, the code brings together best practice from across the world and across disciplines and will enable organisations to move from principles to standards and benchmark themselves against high performers in smart working. At the launch, the organisers also announced the second annual The Way We Work (TW3) Awards, a Civil Service programme recognising government teams that have created smarter ways of working.

Smart working principles are defined in the new standard as those that ‘acknowledge that technology and flexible working patterns are changing the way we work for the better. They are creating modern workplaces that support more flexibility and collaboration to give staff with a better work/life balance. This, in turn, results in greater productivity and efficiencies for the employer.’

In some ways such new approaches will lead the public sector to catch up with what has been happening in the private sector for some time. The past few years have seen many changes in the way firms design and manage their workplace, which have meant that each person typically has significantly less space allocated to them personally but with a greater choice of spaces from which to work depending on what they are doing and with whom they are working.

This approach not only helps the organisation to cut down on its property costs it also helps to ensure that what is a comparatively fixed asset – the building – to create a flexible working environment that can serve more and more people without feeling cramped and, in the case of the public sector, even absorb whole departments.

It is at this level that the elephant (or smaller beast) becomes most nimble. Office design is the best way of ensuring that the building is able to meet the constantly changing needs of the people who work there as well as facilitating change and growth for the business itself.