Observations of Private Sector Success for Public Sector Property Managers

More and more, large private sector organisations are making the successful change to flexible workplaces and are providing Public Sector property managers with compelling case studies on how to improve the effectiveness of their own workspaces.

Flexible working arrangements are an inevitable consequence of a number of global forces reshaping the way we work and how we engage with technology. No organisation is immune but nor should the inevitable be feared.

So what are the success factors of organisations who have made the shift to a new, more flexible workspace?

Here are my top 3 observations of how early-adopting organisations have successfully responded to and harnessed these changes:

  • it starts with a major move
  • it must be top down
  • it’s all about change management

Success factor #1 – Using a major move to signal the strategic intent

All organisations that I have observed started the change to flexible working with a major move.

The first one I remember is NAB’s first move to 800 Bourke Street, Docklands in 2004. Since then we have seen ANZ also move to Docklands; Medibank to Bourke Street, Melbourne, and Westpac to Kent Street, Sydney.

There are obviously others. The common element is that, while they may have experimented on smaller sites, the change to flexible working was not on an existing site; it was done as part of a major move, more often the head office.

This is quite a deliberate strategic play.

Making the move in such a large scale and highly visible way sends a signal. It says, “We are serious about this and it is part of who we are and how we work.”

How this sort of messaging occurs in the public sector is not for me to describe. However the evidence shows that organisations that embark on this type of change do so in a highly visible and major way, as part of a whole new location.

Success factor #2 – It must be led from the very top

The second common element is the level at which this type of workplace change occurs. In fact it isn’t a property strategy at all – it’s an organisational strategy that is owned by the most senior people in the organisation.

If you are going to ask senior people to give up their hard won right to the corner office, that will only be achievable if the CEO, MD, Secretary, Deputy Secretary, First Assistant Secretary do it.

“Why should I agree to this if he/she isn’t?

The buy-in required will be hard fought and the only way to achieve that is leading by example.

Everyone will have a good reason why their area is special –  why they can’t change the way they work! To counter this you must be able to show how people even more senior and more ‘special’ than them are doing it too.

I was told by one senior executive that her measure of success was how many offices she had to agree to. At that time she had relocated 70% of the business to new accommodation and to date not one office had been built.

The most difficult and most resistant businesses were the last to be challenged. She could front them and say, “Well everyone else has agreed – even So-and–So.”  She then had a much better chance of securing their agreement.

On top of that she also had a process which:

  • had a structured engagement, design and approval process for each business
  • required every single deviation from the standard to be signed off from the CEO
  • no one really wanted to explain to the CEO why they were not able to agree when everyone else had

How does this play out in the public sector? I’m not sure but I would suggest that getting a Secretary to agree to change their workplace might be where some of the resistance is.

This change has to be led from the front.

Success factor #3 – It’s all about change management

The third common factor in all successful shifts to flexible working is the focus on change management.

Moving to flexible working is not a property strategy. It is an organisational change strategy, part of which, albeit the most visible part, is the workplace.

To be successful it requires a ‘whole of organisation’ approach to:

  • how work is done and how it will change – requiring HR engagement, change processes and moving people from where they are to where you want them to be and to describe the WIIFM (what’s in it for me)!
  • how technology supports the workplace – this is key! If you don’t have flexibility with your technology, it isn’t going to be successful
  • communications and change management – this is where it all comes together. The communication and change management is how you align and manage staff through the changes to the way they work, how they use the IT and how they engage with the space

Approaches to this change management I have seen include:

  • demonstration suites or mock ups of the new workplace where staff can touch, feel and see what it will be like
  • sand pits of the new technology where staff can view and try any new equipment and learn how access is to be managed
  • regular updates to staff on the changes and where they are at in the phasing

So what?

Flexible working isn’t a way of designing or building a workplace. Similarly, it’s not a HR policy or having access to the latest in mobile technology.

Flexible working is a fundamental shift in the way we work that is being driven by technology and the changing nature of our relationship to work.

As with all change there are innovators, early adopters and eventually the rest.

We have seen the innovators (check out Goggle and other hi-tech workplaces) and the early adopters including big banks and the like.

The question is, how long will it be before the majority of working is flexible and who will move next?

Public sector property accounts for somewhere between 15-30% of all office space in our major cities.

By learning from the early adopters, public sector property managers can play a major role leading their organisations to improve their workplaces and manage the change to suit their business needs.

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