The Minefield of Workplace Standards

Posted by admin On 19th October 2013 In Uncategorized

As Workplace specialists we have witnessed some interesting phenomena over the years. One example is that of the remotely implemented corporate office standard. In other words an office or other workspace designed and specified by people who never actually see it being built never mind when it’s finished. This is akin to building a house but never going there or designing a bathroom renovation without the option of ever using it. Perhaps unsurprisingly this sometimes doesn’t work too well.

Multinationals have for years wavered on the standards for their workplaces worldwide. From too much to too little, standard or guideline, there are no two organisations alike when it comes to the extent their office in one city looks the same as their office in any another.

While the roots of such standards are well founded in brand consistency/awareness, capturing savings through global agreements with vendors and good old fashioned politics the whole subject is fraught with conflict. We have seen so many variations on this theme we thought to make sense of what works, what doesn’t and where standards are heading.

Firstly let’s look at the aspects of workplaces that companies have historically liked to standardise. We can break them down into 4 categories;

  1. Metrics – space per person, lease term, office grade
  2. Office Design – Look and Feel
  3. Office Design – Layout
  4. Technology – data and comms vendors, security, audio/visual, hardware.

What is most interesting is the success which companies have in imposing these. Let’s start with the look and feel of an office. This is perhaps the most popular area for standardisation but with mixed results.  Common branding is straightforward and simple to enforce as is a corporate colour scheme. Where we start to see some issue is with global standards for furniture and workstations. These work well when there is no issue with lead time but when the new site is located away from places of manufacture and the project has a short lead time we see problems. A new office in Texas might have no issue with the supply of new Steelcase or Herman Miller workstations but if that new office is in Brisbane or Jakarta and the construction program permits a lead time of only 8 weeks on workstation supply then we have a problem straight away. We have found that initial plans to purchase product via a global agreement are quickly set aside when a local supplier can deliver an equivalent in terms of cost and quality in half the time. This is less significant with loose furniture such as task chairs as these can be ordered before plans are drawn up based on an expected occupancy number. Generally the smaller the project the more difficult it is to use global agreements as the lead time is correspondingly shorter.

The standardisation of the look and feel of an office can cause some discontent amongst local staff but not as much as imposing an office layout without consultation. This, however, is a common practice. There may be a sense that if local staff are given a say corporate real estate head office loses some of its purpose. The catch here is that a global standard may simply ignore local conditions and culture leading to resentment. Few people enjoy change when they have no say in that change.

Even change which is clearly for the better, a newer, bigger workplace, may receive a frosty reception when those involved have no input on where they are or how they use a space.

Office technology has been the most successful example of standardisation. This is perhaps the simplest area to homogenize as much of the hardware and software is available globally and quickly. Even if it is not there are lots of equivalents when it comes to computer racks, UPS and the like. This runs to the structured cabling system, hardware on the desks and phone systems. Despite this we see local IT staff holding sway over much of the decision making. The problem with this is that it can go too far and some of the most obvious choices are not made because of fears around job security and protecting territory. As we move increasingly to a mobile networked environment our dependence on technology increases yet paradoxically so little of it needs to be in our office. Why would we bother constructing a server room, even a relatively low tech one, when most cities offer data centres where we can house our servers in racks with way more security than you could ever hope to provide in an office building? Bandwidth and speed? Doubtful given the availability of low cost fibre. Closer is safer? Hardly, when that data centre offers multiples levels of redundancy under an SLA. Even if your building provides back up power are you sure you would be allowed into a building with a complete power failure. Cheaper? Very unlikely. The cost of a small computer room in your office with straight cooling and no additional fire protection could run to $50k. If that room has redundant cooling, monitoring and fire suppression more like $100k plus. Of course, there is also the rent to consider on a larger room.

The likelihood of a hosted solution being adopted at the time of a new build being planned is a factor of management much more than cost, safety and convenience. This is one area where the benefits of a standard are not fully realised.

There are 3 scenarios adopted by those who use global standards for the their regional offices;

  1. No engagement with local management – the office is fully planned and designed without local input or at least limited to minor detail. The advantage here is that the locals need not be distracted by the process of delivering their new workspace and can get on with their jobs. The disadvantage is that they are either going to love it or hate it. The latter being a more likely reaction. Lots of fallout on this approach requiring fence mending and, in some cases, re-design.
  2. Partial engagement – local senior management are given limited buy in providing some sense of ownership. This may be limited to some layout decisions but not the allocation of space i.e. the managers cannot determine the size of their workspaces but can determine the locations of departments and common facilities. This is a sensible approach but can cause headaches if not well managed both in terms of scope and timing.
  3. Full engagement – local management determine the layout and select finishes while head office imposes corporate colours and signage. This too can be difficult to manage from a program perspective and can get way out of hand in terms of budget. The other risk here is that we lose some of the benefits of matching technology and security throughout the property portfolio. It also does away with the protection provided by global service agreements for hosting and technology. Here we are more likely to hear the term “guidelines” rather than “standards”.

Our recommended approach is that of partial engagement with the stipulation that this engagement is from the outset. Not after plans are finalised and definitely not after construction has begun. Limited buy in on the selection of furniture and some aspects of layout provide local management with the comfort of knowing they are being considered and leaves far less room for trouble on occupying the space.

Standards to permit the adoption of tested technology should be imposed by head office as the global head of IT is less likely to be swayed by the suggestion of dire consequences by local IT management. We find that non-technical management can be easily terrified by prophesies of doom if local IT don’t get their fully specified computer room.

Selective use of standards, with some circumstantial flexibility, and a consulted but well managed local management team provides the fewest headaches on opening day.

© Ashley Patterson October 2013