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The Hidden Value of Workplace Flexibility

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In a world that is changing at frightening speed, it is strange that many of the ways we work are so entrenched in 20th century thinking. We need to reflect and challenge our thinking on the workplace based on the changing environment and the needs of current and future workforce generations to ensure the ways we work are fit for today and the future.

Workplace flexibility is a key part of a broader business strategy for succeeding in today's 24/7 global work environment. Work forces are more diverse, with greater flexibility demanded from both employers and employees bringing new challenges and opportunities to workforce planning as well as the design of the physical workplace and leadership needs to adapt accordingly.

The flexible workplace is not a new idea. Various forms of workplace flexibility have been explored as a result of technology, social and work process changes over the last 20 years and in 2010 The Sloan Center of Ageing & Work at Boston College published a comprehensive study articulating the case for and defining workplace flexibility:

''Flexibility enables both individual and business needs to be met through making changes to the time (when), location (where) and manner (how) in which an employee works. Flexibility should be mutually beneficial to both the employer and employee and result in superior outcomes.''

In their case study of JP Morgan Chase:

''95% of employees working in an environment where the manager is sensitive to work and personal life--including informal flexibility-- feel motivated to exceed expectations.''

President Obama spoke at the closing session of The Forum on Workplace Flexibility in 2010 and has again reinforced the importance of flexible workplace practices in the June 2014 White House Summit for Working Families. The UK government has gone even further and as of June 30, 2014 every employee has the right to request flexible working hours.

''Modern businesses know that flexible working boosts productivity and staff morale, and helps them keep their top talent so that they can grow."said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

It is very encouraging that this issue is getting attention at the highest level but whilst more policies are in place not a lot has happened since 2010 to significantly impact the workplace experience at the majority of corporate and government workplaces, particularly when compared with advances in technology in that same time frame.

Even enlightened corporate leaders who want to embrace change have a challenge, as performing within silos remains the order of the day in the worlds of Human Resources, Corporate Real Estate / Facilities and IT. Flexible working practices provide direct opportunities to rethink the overall workplace experience through an integrated strategy. People and real estate are a company's most valuable assets and by developing them both in tandem and with technology we can unlock significant value.

The business case for flexible working is clear from a people engagement perspective but it is also very compelling from a financial point of view. In my 30 year experience of delivering workplace transformation programs I can confirm that organizations across sectors and locations as a rule do not use their real estate effectively. Real estate is expensive and trying to save cost by assigning smaller desks to people and packing them in is not the answer. Utilization data consistently demonstrates that people are only at their desks 40-50% of the core working day, providing clear opportunities to use less space and reduce cost through a different approach. Organizations embracing flexible working practices by aligning HR policies, Corporate Real Estate and IT, typically achieve a 20-30% reduction in real estate; unlocking the hidden value of workplace flexibility. This does not mean forcing people out of the office but rethinking the role and purpose of core office space as one of a variety of places that support work and identifying alternative options that offer people inspiring destinations to support greater flexibility and innovation.

Flexible working should not result in an either/or solution. The much cited Marissa Meyer call on time for home working, highlights the relevance of face to face co-presence for organizational cohesion and knowledge sharing. Many knowledge workers who are free to work at home choose to work in an office for the structure and social context of work in an office.The notable trend is how much work occurs in locations other than the office or people's homes.

The rise of Third Space workplaces; people working in libraries/civic centers, coffee bars and various co-working spaces, reinforce the importance of collective places to both motivate work and enable us to ring fence the home as a place of non-work. Corporations are starting to offer access to co-working spaces rather than working from home or commuting to the company headquarters and also benefit from using co-working spaces to collocate with value chain partners in the same space without the risk of additional real estate. Zappos plans to build a variety of community co-working spaces to turn Las Vegas into the co-working capital of the world.

As Third Spaces grow exponentially established shared office providers are changing their business model and new types of providers are creating a rich landscape of choice. Regus have added accessible 'pay as you use' space in train stations, hotels and supermarkets to their offer and the venture funded co-working provider Liquid Space have attracted mainstream partners including CBRE and Marriott to its network of on demand workspaces and meeting spaces that leverage corporate unused space as a commercial venture.

The complexity of our lives and ability to be connected anywhere demands workplace flexibility for us to be effective and engaged. As a result the physical core workplace will both shrink and loose its boundaries. In order to support the way people actually work and help them to manage all the demands on their time, we need to provide a new landscape for work; offering offering new types of core workspace and access to a greater variety of venues for work.