10 Innovative Workplace Strategy and Technology Ideas: 2014

This insight document was originally published by Tech Research Asia in 2014 and written independently of any sponsorships or funding.

The world of work is changing. At the heart of this change is the concept of time, place and technology independence for employees of companies of all sizes, types and locations. But flexible working is more than just an individual “IT-Technology” initiative, a human resources policy, or a facilities management approach. Contemporary work styles like Activity Based Working (ABW) take their lead from the harmonization and optimisation of real estate utilisation, talent management, organizational culture, and technology considerations. ABW and other flexible working strategies like telework involve a broad set of influencers and decision makers across multiple areas of the business.

Since the start of 2013, TRA’s Intelligent Workspaces research has involved quantitative surveys and more than 100 independent analyst deep dive interviews with CxOs of organisations across ANZ, ASEAN and Japan. We have the most comprehensive and mature data and insights on the current and future direction of the world of work in the Asia Pacific region. TRA analysts have also been engaged in an advisory capacity in numerous ABW projects. Through this work we encounter a vast amount of innovative workplace strategy and technology ideas – some are new and some are old. But all present opportunities. Below we describe 10 of these ideas for CxO and IT leaders to consider for their office

The X-of-the-future showcase

An urban farm at Pasona’s offices in Tokyo. Source: Kono Designs An urban farm at Pasona’s offices in Tokyo. Source: Kono Designs

Although the idea of a “show room” is hardly new, many organisations are revitalising the concept with innovative approaches that aim to engage not just customers, but also employees and partners in their value chain. The image above shows an urban farm at Pasona’s offices in Tokyo, Japan. One of the main reasons the firm introduced an urban farm into its offices was it wanted to highlight the agricultural sector – one of its partners and clients – along with offering employees a more natural and inspiring environment. Other examples are packaging companies setting up a futuristic but actual supermarket store in the show room to showcase its products. In a new ABW office in Melbourne, Australia, National Australia Bank (NAB) has also set up a co-working space called The Village, for both its employees and partners to use and to highlight flexible / collaborative ways of working.

In all of these examples it is critical that the technology experience is seamless. While the required technology will clearly depend on the X-of-the-future showcase being pursued it will typically require wireless connectivity for all, supporting interactive displays and audio visual components, and complementary online or app-based information services.

The war room

Beyond a standard meeting or board room, the war room is a combination of physical and virtual space that allows teams of two to 20+ to quickly come together and innovate around or respond to specific projects or issues. The space should be both inspiring and act as a hive of organisational thinking. It should not, however, be regarded as the only “space” that is used for innovation as many great ideas will be conceived in both conventional and unconventional times and spaces. However, the war room is meant to be a focal point and a structured approach for supporting ideas generation or responding to specific issues.

The physical space will typically have modular furniture that allows different set ups to suit the task at hand along with lots of whiteboard (including walls and windows) on which to write or post notes. The space may include supporting standing only gatherings, skunk works teams, agile software development teams, long-term focus sessions or projects, and high-intensity meetings that require “through-the-night” working. In other words, the space is not your typical meeting room with only desks, chairs and a whiteboard or projector.

The technology required for a war room includes, but is not limited to, wireless connectivity, projectors, meeting room booking systems, video conferencing, large screen displays (including potentially Surface tables), audio visual (including TV and/or radio access), and software for allowing document or content collaboration in real time between multiple individuals that have their own mobile devices. Sufficient device charging points are critical. Digital or interactive walls/screens can also be considered. Social enterprise tools that allow project or issue team members to continue collaborating virtually complement the physical space and help to document progress. An important facet of any war room is also documenting the process and making sure employees can access different iterations of ideas and content.

To make a war room effective requires cultural change at both the grassroots employee level and amongst the executive leadership – the long term nature of this cultural change should not be underestimated. But war rooms can provide an organisation with a powerful place to fail fast and learn quickly – i.e. become more agile and improve responsiveness or creativity.

The digital receptionist

Digital receptions can offer a cost effective way to provide an interactive welcome to office guests while replacing duplicated reception areas & staff, and the time-worn telephone reception (common in many Asia Pacific offices). Recent digital receptions (like that from Team Lab in Japan shown below) are hung or placed in what would typically be the reception area. These devices require some set up including photos of employees, directory integration and application installation on end user devices. They also incorporate video conferencing and can be used additionally for media distribution.

A Digital Reception at Pixiv, Tokyo, Japan.Source: Team-Lab

The multi-use big space

Contemporary big spaces in ABW offices are meant to be used for many purposes – not merely the occasional large meeting. Types of work or events that are conducted in ABW big spaces include collaboration between big teams, town hall-style events, individual or small-group work spaces, entertaining clients or running events, and staff recreation to name a few ides. Essentially, these big spaces are intended to be able to be used for anything required and help to increase the utilisation of the space along with reducing costs by eliminating the need to rent outside space, over-investing in floor space that is used only occasionally. As such, many of these spaces include modular furniture that can be moved easily for different set ups along with partitions that allow the space to be changed into a variety of smaller sizes – all done by employees without requiring dedicated staff (IT or facilities) which incur labour costs (aka churn costs). In addition to high-density WiFi, the multi-use big space requires considerable thought on the audio visual side including the control of lighting, sound, displays and projectors. Consideration should also be given to building systems including air conditioning and control of blinds/curtains.

A big space at Pixiv in Tokyo. Source: Team-LabSource: Team-Lab

Extending the role of the access card

Many enterprises already have smart access cards that allow employees to enter and exit various spaces in a building and potentially have these linked to the use of lifts, registers (in retail) and displays (e.g. in healthcare). This can be extended easily to integrate follow-me printing (which is essential for flexible offices) and potentially could include in-office and / or local retail store payments. Instead of carrying cash around with them, employees can simply tap their smart card and pay for items/services digitally (with reconciliation happening in a pre-determined manner) – in the same way as “tap and pay” provider offerings like Visa or MasterCard. Further, smart card functionality can be extended (or replaced by wearable devices / smartphones) to incorporate data capture (location, sound, health, etc) that can be analysed, for example, to show movements within an office and correlated with outputs to help with optimising productivity or utilisation.

Consumerisation of automation

In the consumer world, many inexpensive smart home control hubs have become generally available in the past 24 months. These devices are central to the concept of the smart home. They allow consumers to wirelessly manage and control the connected devices in their homes and automate tasks (such as turning devices on or off based on trigger actions/times) via a smartphone or tablet application (and website). They can also be integrated with security (including smart locks), assisted living and other entertainment services. While there are many existing solutions and technologies for building automation and management, these consumer control hubs present an opportunity for all types of organisations to affordably automate their office, particularly in small businesses. There are many benefits of automating the control of devices, lights, air conditioning and other elements of the office in terms of reducing energy usage, establishing a comfortable and engaging physical space, and improving efficiency. Notably the cost of the consumer control hubs is low and integration is increasingly easy to achieve.

The tech advocacy bar

The traditional IT help-desk is more often than not a phone-based, reactive service utilised by employees once they are already feeling frustrated with technology in the workplace. The experience, while well-refined and executed in many organisations, is rarely a win-win-win – employees often feel frustrated, help desk staff are on the brunt of this frustration, and the organisation suffers from this friction. Several ABW organisations have taken the opportunity that adopting the work style offers to change this situation by evolving the concept of the help desk. Instead of only being a reactive troubleshooting service, the help desk becomes an advocate of technology with its own “space” where employees can drop in to have their issues addresses and also to learn about ways of using the IT at their disposal. In many cases, this new help desk – more like a tech advocacy bar in the vein of Apple’s renowned Genius Bar – also stocks spare devices that employees can use when their own devices need attention. This new approach, of course, follows best practice in help desk and is complemented by interactive solutions (like virtual concierges) that help employees DIY troubleshooting and develop their tech knowledge and capabilities.

Standing-only + Swiss ball spaces

In several ABW sites organisations have done away with chairs in some meeting rooms and workstations to encourage quicker discussions and help improve staff health. These standing-only spaces typically have large screens on the desk or walls or embedded into a main table lying flat; which are designed higher than the average meeting room desk to encourage standing. Employees can collaboratively edit documents on the large touch screens or share their own device screen through wireless presenter software or similar tools. These spaces are supported by ubiquitous WiFi or fixed-line broadband connections when high-definition video conferencing is required. As one of the aims of the standing-only spaces is to make meetings quicker, some organisations only allow these spaces to be booked for 30 minutes at a time and this can be done through touch-screen panels outside the room on the fly or in advance through a room booking system. Other organisations have replaced chairs with Swiss ball seating to encourage better health.

Real time feedback

The vast majority of organisations today rely on word of mouth or casual commentary, performance reviews and official but only annual satisfaction surveys to gather feedback from their employees on the workplace and organisation’s activities overall. Likewise, many organisations that have customer-facing workplaces – such as retail stores, customer service centres, transport hubs, and also more contemporary co-working sites used by partners and customers – often only have online feedback systems. In both the internal office and customer facing situations, the use of these feedback mechanisms alone can mean the organisation is slow to act to address challenges and opportunities. However, there are solutions like those first used at Singapore’s Changi Airport (and now at Brisbane airport in Australia) that embrace real time feedback. Through a touch screen panel (shown below) and easy- and quick-to-use applications, visitors to the airports are encouraged to provide feedback on their experience with amenities. Any issues flagged by the system trigger an alert to the relevant staff in the organisation for them to address. This offers far more real time service and insights into the customer experience. This approach also has many applications for internal employees in an office environment, including with café areas, meeting rooms (including the content of meetings) and other spaces such as recreation areas. Internal questions may also be adjusted to investigate employee satisfaction and engagement instead of the experience of the space.

The concentration space

One of the biggest misconceptions about ABW is that these offices are noisy because of an open plan design and as a result employees suffer from interruptions. ABW, however, is not just an open plan office. Rather it offers a large variety of spaces and noise pollution is rarely an issue if designed appropriately and with the right etiquette followed. However, there are times when employees need a quiet space to concentrate and focus for long periods of time. So concentration or library spaces that offer privacy, support confidential work, and allow solitude – but without compromising the contemporary design of the office – are common in ABW companies. Employees can shut themselves away for long periods of concentration time and not be disturbed. Indeed, most organisations will establish policies like turning off smartphones in these areas or even banning talking altogether.