The science and art of setting up a pilot workspace (And why everyone should do it)

Getting endorsement for a new workplace design is time consuming and hard enough, so why waste time on a pilot project? In this blog we look at the benefits that can be achieved by pushing the boundaries of workplace design in a pilot setting, before going for the full expensive roll out.

Here at brainybirdz we have spent the last 18 months working with a global manufacturing company with an HQ office based workforce of around 450. When we first got to know them, there was a general consensus that their office accommodation was not serving their needs well, but despite some reference visits to other sites and some qualitative research into what people felt about their existing office space, there was no clear view of how much change was required and if so in what way and crucially to what end. The idea of Activity Based Working (ABW) had taken hold and most were vehemently opposed to it. In order to move the project on it had been agreed in principle that there would be a pilot project, so we set about helping them to flesh out the scope.

The key step was to establish a common agreed view in the senior team of what the project was to achieve in terms of business outcomes. These turned out to be all about speeding up customer responsiveness by improving communication and collaboration between two key functions in the business.

The next key step was to identify KPIs (key performance indicators) that would be the measure of success of the overall project and would then inform the way the pilot was to be set up, and act as the framework for how the pilot workspace would be evaluated. We were then able to measure the current state of the workspace occupied by the almost 40 people that had been identified to participate in the pilot using the same evaluation framework. This would provide the benchmark data against which we would be able to compare the performance of the pilot workspace.

It was only after both these steps, that the task of developing a design brief for the pilot workspace began. Thus far we had adopted a very logical scientific approach to the task by establishing quantifiable measures of success which had laid the ground work for a greater understanding about why the whole workplace project was even necessary. But there was still some agitation and scepticism about ABW and we were by no means convinced that a scheme with no allocated desks would be the best answer anyway. This is where the ‘art’ came in alongside the science.

We recommended that the pilot was the opportunity to go as far out as possible with the design from the current state. We already knew from previous research, some of the elements that might make a fundamental difference to ways of working and outcomes, but we still needed evidence that it would make a positive difference in this organisation. The brief for the pilot participants was that this was going to be an experiment. Nothing had been pre-decided about the design that would eventually be rolled out, which was true, and we simply needed them to give it a go and actively participate in the process and feedback their experiences through both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Before the pilot workspace, many had their own single person office.

This meant that in October 2018, 40 people moved from their existing workspace, many from their own single offices, to a shared workspace over 2 floors with no allocated desks, zoned into three areas: buzzy, home and quiet, with a high diversity of furniture settings.

The spatial mapping we designed for new pilot activity based working area showing zoning and setting diversity.

The call for participants to actively engage in the process was at the beginning, ignored by many. Complaints were high, people chose to go back to their offices which were still available on site, tension grew between some of the different teams located in the pilot that were now fully visible to each other whereas before each department had pretty much had its own segregated area. After 6 weeks we ran the first evaluation surveys. A few people sabotaged the surveys. And response rates were low.

Then a funny thing happened. Over many breakfast feedback sessions some complaints and niggles began to get sorted out. The minority who had found some real positives out of the experience began to find their voice. More people admitted that perhaps they quite liked it after all even if still with some reservations. We recommended a relatively minor re-design, which had always been factored into the planning, and we were able to demonstrate that some of the concerns had been listened to and acted on.

After 3 months, we conducted the second evaluation surveys. This time we got results that were meaningful and we set about looking at how well the desired outcomes had been met.

In the pilot, people had to share their workspace with others, difficult at first for some, but something to celebrate by the end.

In June this year, we presented our findings back to the senior management team. The data was not all conclusive, but we did have data and that has made a big difference to the decision making process of whether and how to rollout a new way of working to the whole organisation. Crucially, we were able to show a significant quantifiable increase in communication taking place across teams – a metric that was backed up by the qualitative feedback that was also gathered. It has helped the business to feel more comfortable that the outcomes they want to see are achievable and to understand the risks involved in disrupting the organisation with such a significant change. We gave them an option for a workplace design that was not such a radical change as the ABW solution piloted, but at time of going to press they have made a commitment to start to roll out the more radical option. They also now have the evaluation methods to fall back on for each phase of the roll out to test out how well it is going. Although the pilot is officially finished, some participants have lobbied to stay put in the pilot space and not return to their old offices.

For some reading this blog, the time taken to go through a pilot process may seem too long and resource hungry, but the upside in terms of organisational learning and subsequent willingness to push forward with potentially transformative change in this case proved to be immense. The whole project will be much better for it.




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