Which way forward?

i-FM.net Which way forward?

What better candidate for a workplace transformation case study than Which?

It’s what the consumers' champion does: understand the needs, review the solutions on offer, assess strengths and weaknesses, and recommend the best choice. Methodical, logical, properly resourced, evidence-based decisions.  What more could you ask for?

Which? has about 700 employees currently.  For the majority of those, about 500, ‘home’ is London – on Marylebone Road near Portland Street station in one of those classic creamy-white Regency buildings (pictured above). 

And like most office-centred organisations, Which? is currently grappling with identifying and implementing the best workplace solutions post-Covid.

“It’s a pretty typical story,” says group people director Cathy Webster (right). “We were mainly office-based, five days a week in the office before the pandemic lockdowns.  Then when we had to, we pivoted to everyone working from home – surprising ourselves about how agile we proved to be.  And that was the pattern for most of the next two years, until we were able to come back.”

As the pandemic days wore on, the Which? Leadership Team started to discuss ways to encourage employees to return to the office. The key concern here was to avoid losing the benefits of sharing information and the opportunities for creativity that are inherent in people sitting together in the same workspace. This was paralleled by a desire to invest in the employee value proposition, since Which? - like most organisations these days - faces a competitive recruitment/talent retention market.  At the same time, consideration was also being given at leadership level to cost reduction opportunities (for example, maybe bringing in tenants, moving to cheaper real estate, don’t have a head office at all…).

One thing was clear: the workplace itself – its location and basic quality – was not a significant obstacle to its use in the way that a tired, poorly located facility might be. Nor was the Which? culture a problem: communication and engagement with employees normally sit at levels that many organisations would envy. 

Adjusting to the future
That engagement with employees was one key strand in the development of plans to reshape the approach to work and the workplace post-lockdown. There were, admittedly, some mixed views on the ‘right’ way forward, but the change process swung into action based on the best understanding of changing needs available at that point in the early post-Covid days.

“When we could return from lockdown,” Webster explains, “we set up a project group in London because we wanted to continue with hybrid working. We knew that everyone valued time at home – and we knew we had to work in a different way.  So, we reconfigured one floor to provide collaborative space, applying hybrid working principles, including setting up remote meeting technology in meeting rooms.”

The consumers’ champion had more flexibility than some occupants of those historic buildings with their superb views over Regents Park. Theirs had been refurbished some years earlier, which saw the development of modern work space behind the listed facade. This provided Which? with the opportunity to tailor the space to suit their needs at the time.

On one of its four floors, Webster recalls, Which? had “marvellous canteen facilities”, but these were closed in response to the uncertainty of the post-pandemic days when it was impossible to predict take-up with any degree of confidence. 

In addition to physical changes, Which? adopted the general policy that people would be in the office 5 – 8 days a month, roughly 1 or 2 days a week as an expectation.  This was part of a “learn as we go” approach, Webster says. “And in that context,” she continues, “we were soon observing that people didn’t really like the 5 – 8 days concept. They thought that was quite restrictive.  We had wanted people to come in once a week for team days; that was the principle of the working pattern.  But people felt it was too prescriptive.”

These policies were still evolving, but to provide a grounding for the changes, hybrid working principles had been put in place along with guidelines and support for managers.  There were also training and discussion sessions to help with the change, with all key documents and guidance on the corporate intranet for easy reference.

With further experience, Which? moved away from the prescriptive approach and towards a “moments that matter” concept.  The expectation then was that the office would be used for those points where it’s important to share time in person.  Broadly speaking, Which? employees work in teams and so for many the best time for sharing is the team day – the one day a week when the whole team is in. There are also organisational moments that matter, such as quarterly communication sessions, for example.  The result – broadly – was that people were in the office about two days a week. This revised approach to office presence proved to work well - the evidence for that, says Webster, comes in one of the best forms: an absence of complaints!

A process for change
In applying what you might call ‘the Which? formula’, Webster’s team was consistently gathering new information and feedback on the job at hand – specifically by periodically testing employee views and opinions, and at the same time observing how people were using the office. On that latter point, the peaks and troughs in a typical week were obvious. “It was clear that we still weren’t making the best use of all our space,” she notes.  “And because we are a charity, it is particularly important that we use all our assets in a productive way. We had already let out one floor and began to think that we might be able to let out a second.  We also really wanted to understand what our people wanted to use the office for and, when they were in, in detail how they wanted to use the space.”

It was at this point that Which? was introduced to Iain Shorthose, global workplace experience director at Paragon Workplace Solutions. Shorthose arrived with his well-honed insights tool, Optima, which promised the key ingredient so often in short supply in situations like this: reliable data. 

“The Leadership Team had been thinking ‘we need the data to give us more confidence in making the right decisions’,” Webster recalls.  “We had a lot of ad hoc and anecdotal feedback, but we didn’t have anything comprehensive and in-depth.” 

To address the confidence problem, the underlying lack of data and the resulting mix of views about how best to proceed, Which? appointed Paragon on a consultancy services project. This involved:

  • 1-2-1 interviews with the Leadership Team on five key topics linked to the workplace: goals, strategy, culture, purpose and leadership. The reason for this process was to better understand individual perspectives towards the workplace strategy, where there was alignment of views and where gaining consensus in order to move forward was needed.
  • The deployment of Optima to all employees that work from the Marylebone office. Optima gives insights as to who is using the workplace, what for, how they use the space, what’s important to them and how well the existing workplace supports them. All insights were then played back to the Leadership Team.
  • Finally, Shorthose took the team through the insights to prioritise what required immediate action, where investment needed to be made, how the hybrid working policy needed refining, and what impact all this would have on the real estate requirements.

Paragon describes Optima as a sentiment-based workplace performance tool. “It’s been developed to enhance the employee experience and make organisations’ day-to-day operations more efficient, effective and profitable,” explains Shorthose. “By combining data with advanced algorithms, it can pinpoint where workplaces are performing well and where there are opportunities for improvement.”

In essence, Optima aims to enable organisations to embrace change by making decisions based on data and insight – rather than simply as a leap of faith. 

The immediate goal at Which? was to define with the Leadership Team an agreed approach to new ways of working, one that was in line with and supportive of Which? goals. The purpose was not to mandate change, but to look at role-specific arrangements that would be led by line managers in order to achieve a ‘fit for purpose’ workplace, one that employees would want to use.  And the process itself was a considerable success, with the survey achieving a 72% response rate – very high for this sort of engagement work.

Confidence in your decisions
The research process had considerable benefit, Webster notes: “The confidence boost was important. It enabled us to have good conversations – with good data – at Leadership Team level about what we wanted to achieve. And the things that we were, and are, putting in place, we are confident that they are what our employees need.”

In broad terms, the consultancy process revealed that the views of the Leadership Team were not far off those of the employee base.  In more specific terms, it revealed things that hadn’t previously been picked up on – for example, the importance of focused work: It was clear that some employees weren’t coming into the office as they couldn’t find quiet spaces to focus. 

Looking back at the survey results, Shorthose says: “Certainly what Which? were doing right was that they were being active; they were reviewing, they were engaging with their employees.  The ideal in situations like this is to use a structured approach to counteract the tendency towards anecdotal information that might be open to differing interpretations.  You are looking for something closer to the ‘one version of the truth’ concept. 

“One issue this approach brought out for Which? was the importance of individual focused work. This was a key consideration for many – people coming into the office were not going to be collaborative all day; they also need to make phone calls, respond to emails and so on, all in spaces that support head-down concentration. The Optima data made it clear that, yes, collaboration is essential but so are the complementary individual work opportunities.  And that is a valuable insight into the sort of workspaces that need to be provided for people.”

Across the full range of results, the high response rate provided a solid grounding for decisions about the sort of work environments needed, as well as the amount of space.

“This all gave us more confidence that we were on the right track. It gave us confidence that letting out a second floor was the right thing to do, and confidence in going ahead with the planning for the reconfiguring of a further floor for our own use – with spaces for more smaller meetings and designated quiet areas,” Webster says. 

Optima also helped to reveal how important food and coffee are – there was a strong interest in some good catering and some nice coffee in the office. In response, she adds: “We have brought in a free breakfast for everybody, which everybody loves.  It is actually creating community time for the people in the office.  We’ve also introduced some high-end bean-to-cup machines, which have been very well received in the context of the cost-of-living crisis.”

The confidence issue was especially important. “Another thing the survey showed us was that we weren’t that far off the target,” Webster notes. “There’s a tendency to assume that other organisations must be handling these changes much better than us: what are they doing and how?  But with Iain’s outside perspective, he was able to reassure us that we were on the right track.  He praised us for being purposeful in that we were approaching the challenge of change and how we were working with our employees.  That was a great relief to the Leadership Team.”

In addition, as both a charity and a charity with a commercial arm, Which? operations are watched over carefully by both a council (for the former) and a board (for the latter). The level of scrutiny operates most comfortably in an evidence-based environment; consequently, workplace decision-making based on reliable data was a welcome approach.  The Paragon tool offered the data necessary to inform the planning process and to back up the implementation decisions subsequently made. Which? found that having the evidence about what people valued has been invaluable in adjusting to the post-Covid world of work. 

Now and into the future
Currently, the reconfiguring of the second occupied floor is being planned. There is an employee representative group advising on that.  Tuesdays and Thursdays are the days of peak use; and the project team is discussing with the rep group whether they can get better use on Wednesdays, for example. The timing of team days and tech requirements are also being discussed, as well as how the impacts of implementation will be handled.

The project team for all this change comprises Cathy Webster as lead, along with a change manager, the head of workplace experience, the FM, a member of the finance team, a member of the IT team and a member of the internal comms team. 

And it is working. There is broad agreement that the approach Which? is using here is providing good, solid, workable solutions to the post-Covid workplace challenges across all the dimensions involved – space quantity, quality and configuration; corporate culture and goals; employee engagement; and service provision.

The plan is to rerun an Optima survey when everyone has settled into the reconfigured space.  Then the focus will turn to the 150-strong commercial operations and membership services teams based in Cardiff. 

This is definitely a story we’ll want to follow up on.