Great Associate Experiences Start with Choice and Flexibility

Office Space

The biggest change in the office environment is choice and flexibility. People are finding different ways and spaces in which to work that make them happy.

Today’s post is by Ira Sharfin, CEO, Continental Office.

It’s not a question of if the workplace will change. It’s a matter of when. The days of mundane 8 to 5’s while stuck in a grey, uninspired cubical are rapidly becoming obsolete. Today’s workforce is finding different ways and spaces in which to work that make them happy and more productive.

People are always surprised when I tell them the biggest change I’ve seen emerge isn’t, in fact, the open office. The most notable change over the past decade has been the arrival of choice and flexibility in the workplace. Truth be told, the open office plan does happen to be a popular design given the amount of buzz in recent years. But what’s most important is giving people control over “where” and “how” they work. By creating dynamic settings, we can have the most positive impact on today’s workforce.

I’ve seen what the addition of choice and flexibility can do for both our clients and our own team. I remember when I first came to Continental Office. I wanted to change a traditional conference room by removing the large board room table and 12 chairs surrounding it. I enlisted the help of Nick, our EVP of Design. We brought in several new pieces, including couches and a white Eames lounge chair. We installed embedded LED panels in the wall and created a whole new environment. Some people thought it was a bit crazy. Others asked for the old furniture to be brought back in. Most believed no one would ever use the updated room.

I had a vision though and wanted to see it through. So, we pressed on. Carpet was removed and the concrete floor was polished. New technology was integrated. What we were really doing was adding choice and flexibility, but our team didn’t realize that yet. It was built as a space that could be used in a variety of ways, like presenting to a group, holding an event, or even simply lounging and catching up on emails.

For a couple of months, it went unused and untouched, other than for Nick and I using it. Frankly, I didn’t know if our associates were afraid of using the new space or just didn’t like it. I wondered if we just wasted a bunch of money. I decided to start holding team meetings in the new space. Soon after, I began to notice certain groups taking advantage of the space. Next came interior designers lounging on the couch with their earbuds in and working on their laptops.

Before long, the room we affectionately called the Garage, became the most in-demand space in our building. The reason was threefold: (1) It was a destination spot in the building, and people could get away from their desks for a while, (2) The space was so flexible and comfortable, whether you were working alone or meeting with a group of 15 people, and (3) Most importantly, we gave everyone “permission” to use this new space however they saw fit.

That’s just one simple example, but it helps paint the picture of what adding choice and flexibility can do for the associate experience. In fact, we recently published our Workplace Flexibility & Choice Research in which 262 currently employed respondents said choice in where they sit and flexible spaces were among the most important workplace attributes. They also reported that the physical workspace greatly impacts their associate experience. In fact, when asked how much the physical workspace affects their overall happiness, on average they ranked it 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most important. This ranked true across the board from the associate level to the managerial and C-Suite levels.

Every day I see the correlation between innovative workplace design and the overall employee experience grow stronger. In fact, there are really only three resources available to attract and retain people: (1) challenging roles within the company, (2) competitive compensation, and (3) engaged culture with a creative workplace design. The reality is most companies tend to only rely on the job description and the compensation. However, more organizations are beginning to realize the importance of workplace design and how it impacts their bottom line, both in terms of revenue and keeping great talent.

You’re only as good as your talent, so understanding the current workforces’ collective needs is critical and will save us financially and knowledge-wise in the long run. As a matter of fact, as we looked more closely at our survey data, we noticed a startling statistic; Nearly one-fourth of today’s workforce said their physical workplace affects their decision to stay at or leave an organization. Can you imagine the impact if 25% of the employees left your company because they didn’t like your workspace? This may seem extreme and highly unlikely, however, any loss of top talent can be costly. For example, the Society for Human Resource Management reports, on average, it costs a company 6 to 9 months of an employee’s salary to replace him or her.

Let’s face it, with lower unemployment rates across the US, the race for talent is getting more competitive. For most businesses, real estate and people are the two biggest expenses. That’s why it’s more critical than ever that we invest in our spaces and people in the right way.

I’m constantly working to provide the best experiences for my team. Sometimes there’s a lot of trial and error involved. What I’ve learned over the years is that we, as leaders, need to disrupt and take risks. We need to provide that choice and flexibility for our teams and give them permission not to be tethered to their desks. And, we need to realize it’s less about what we do and more about our collective knowledge and the experiences we provide internally and externally. Let’s give people more control over how and where they work. This will take your employee experience to the next level. You’ll be amazed by the ROI.

Ira Sharfin is the CEO of privately held Continental Office, based in Columbus, OH, with additional locations in Pittsburgh and Toledo. As an owner, he joined Continental in 2005 after 17 years as a strategy partner at PwC and IBM working with Fortune 500 companies. He has worked with teams on business strategy, marketing and sales alignment, merger integration, and associate engagement.

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