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MSc (Workplace Consultancy) – why not?
Posted on Sat, 2018-12-01 00:00 by Chris Carr
“…experts that attended the Institute for the Future workshop in March 2017 estimated that around 85% of the jobs that today’s learners will be doing in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.”
During the Blair Government years there was a drive to get more school leavers into tertiary education; a rather vague target of 50% was set for people entering university courses. This drive was no doubt well-intentioned, but it did unwittingly lead to the development of some degree courses that might not have met the highest of educational standards (raising the hackles of the Daily Mail in the process). Some disciplines obviously require years of study and practice, e.g. Medicine, Dentistry, Law, before the individual is able to practice; other disciplines you essentially learn on the job at present. One such discipline is Workplace Consultancy.
Workplace Consultancy might be considered somewhat of a mongrel of a profession, a “jack of all trades” discipline etc. You can study for a BSc in Facilities Management at institutions like Liverpool John Moores University and often FM is seen as ‘second-cousin-twice-removed’ from Workplace Consultancy.
Were Workplace Consultancy to be taught as a degree course (starting probably at Masters level), what might the constituent elements of the course be? What modules might make up the taught part of the course? The following are presented in no particular order.
As a Workplace Consultant you have to be able to sell your ideas to the client, therefore a little knowledge of the theoretical and practical aspects of marketing would not be out of place in the degree course. A few practical seminars on Acting thrown in for good measure would be useful, to give you the confidence to work the crowd and to project properly to a large audience. We’ve all sat through seminars where an interesting and relevant topic is badly let down by a woeful presenter hiding behind a podium and reading a script. Debating skills and knowing how the respond quickly to questions is always going to be important. Often Workplace Consultants have to challenge their client and knowing when to pick a ‘fight’ is learned through experience; perhaps this is one topic that can’t be taught in class, however.
A client does not always expect that the same person who is carrying out the staff engagement will be the same person who will detail the tender drawings. However, some knowledge of building construction is useful and stops wistful ideas from the client (and the consultant) being developed when there is no practical opportunity (within reason) to implement them. There’s no point in getting your clients’ hopes up with a workplace design solution that requires the legendary ‘sky hooks’.
Should a Workplace Consultant know which colours are ‘on trend’ for the following year? Possibly not but having an awareness of what is popular in interior design and being aware of successful completed projects across the sector is invaluable. At haa design designers and consultants sit side-by-side so there is an obvious opportunity to learn through the very fact of being co-located. Similarly, with furniture solutions, knowing what options are available and ballpark costs are important; knowing that Orangebox do standalone meeting booths in four different configurations is not critical (I made that bit up – maybe they do supply that number). Workplace Consultants are never hired to be designers. To re-quote Neil Usher in his book The Elemental Workplace, “if the brief is a design, start again”.
Mathematics & Statistics
Information is king these days and we are being bombarded by facts and ‘facts’ 24/7. On a purely superficial level if you state 51.2% rather than ‘approximately half’ then you are perceived as being more rigorous (nevermind how large the error bars might be with that precise figure, nevermind that precision and accuracy are often seen as being the same thing – they are not). The ability to understand complex data and manipulate it is an important skill. It’s not just being able to work your way around an Excel spreadsheet, though that is important too.
To a certain extent his ties in with Marketing. Being able to read a room and understand what drives individuals, teams and organisations is vitally important. Equally, knowing which questions to ask of your client can often unlock the answers that will progress the project far quicker than innumerable focus groups. That ‘naïve’ question you ask of the client is often the product of endless hours of background research. I don’t foresee a time when interviews are conducted with the client supine on a couch and with an opening gambit of “How does your relationship with your parents influence your approach to smarter working?”.
Nowadays the daily commute (especially in London) is a key contributor to workplace stress (and therefore individual performance). Understanding how transport and flexible working impacts a more mobile workforce is important. An appreciation of the opportunities for green travel and how staff facilities to support different forms of travel impact upon building design and office layout is useful. The rise in the provision of showers and bicycle storage and the continual reduction in car-parking spaces are both key items for discussion during staff engagement.
Great ideas need to jump off a page or a presentation and the ability to write a coherent (and concise) sentence is invaluable. While a client will always say that they want a comprehensive written report, often the real decision makers sitting in head office will have time for a short executive summary and nothing else. Before able to get to the heart of the matter quickly and not couching your conclusions and recommendations in industry jargon is important for maintaining credibility. Knowing the difference between atria and atrium tells the client that you are educated; this can often place the client at ease.
What makes you stand out from the crowd and show that you are different is often how you are able to show that you will tackle problems from a different perspective and always use evidence to back up statements. One such way of differentiating yourself from your competitors is to keep abreast of research trends and more importantly, to direct your own research. Knowing a little of practical research methods will be of benefit.
The three interlocking circles – people, place and technology – will always have a place in a workplace transformation project. While no-one is expecting that you are a computer scientist and AV / IT technician all rolled into one, the client will expect that as a Workplace Consultant that you have an awareness of what is possible and what technology will support them moving forward. Being able to intelligently discuss proposals with the clients’ in-house technology teams, but also to know when to say “I’ll need to look into that a bit more” or “I think that’s one for a specialist consultant” is a key skill and one to learn quickly.
Environmental Science / Environmental Psychology
9 times out of 10 the main issues with an existing workplace (according to staff surveys) are heat (too much in the summer, too little in the winter) and light (not enough natural light). 10 times out of 10 noise is also discussed (in terms of disturbance and need for concentration). Being aware of recent research (e.g. on biophilia, acoustics, circadian lighting) is important a is knowing what is appropriate for the particular client.
This is again veering into the realms of specialist consultant and into the technical detail of how buildings operate and are controlled. There will always be an occasion for the Workplace Consultant to show they know the basics, but then very quickly hand over to the experts.
The above are all the different aspects of being a Workplace Consultant; there are undoubtedly a few areas that have been omitted. Jack of all trades, master of none is perhaps not too wide of the mark.
If no two clients are the same, then no two projects are the same and therefore the above knowledge sets will be used to varying degrees. A Masters level course based on the above would be a challenge for the student, but the breadth of topics is very interesting and one that would necessarily involve some element of practical application of the taught portion. Perhaps local private sector consultants could deliver the seminars, making use of their expert knowledge (and perhaps, with a small cohort, even using their own meeting facilities). Who knows, perhaps one of our Glasgow higher education institutions might be interested in delivering such a course.
The one aspect of workplace that is a constant is that change itself will be ever present. Therefore, the need for skilled Workplace Consultants to assist clients in coping with this change will also be a constant.
20 years ago, no-one had heard of Workplace Consultancy as a profession. Given the nature of job invention as outlined in the Dell report, should, we be surprised that new professions are emerging. Who knows, maybe in 5 years’ time high school pupils will go to university open days and have their interest piqued.
The stomach and the heart
“He lifted a limp cheese sandwich to his mouth, crumbs spilling awkwardly into the already crumb-ridden keyboard, while he scanned the screen, eyes darting from side to side. His back ached from sitting hunched over the desk for too long. Aged 46, he felt at least 10 years older. It was only Tuesday.”
No, it’s not an entry for the Bad Fiction Awards. It’s my life. It’s my fault.
“Exchanging plans for the weekend, the conversation flowed back and forth across the communal break-out table, the flavours from the different food choices providing a backdrop to the animated discussions. Walking past on his way to grab a coffee, a colleague interjected, imparting some first-hand knowledge.”
The second paragraph is what is conveyed or at least implied in the photos following a workplace refurbishment or the move to the new office. Everyone in the shot looks like a Gap model and there’s usually the correct demographic mix to show that the organisation is ticking all the boxes.
Which version more closely resembles your lunchtime experience? I am guessing that for the majority of people, the second version is only a dream.
But what is stopping you from moving away from your desk? If it is workload then, as was highlighted in a previous thought piece, it’s either stop prevaricating and manage your time better. Or get better at delegating or asking for assistance (a worthwhile skill to learn). If it is the design of the workplace and the lack of decent facilities, then that might be (somewhat) easier to fix.
Feasibility and fit-out projects large and small delivered by our office over the past few years have had several things in common. Concern over the loss of personal space is one topic that raises its head constantly (and is somewhat assuaged by the reveal of what might be gained by sharing). Environmental conditions in the workplace will always be high on the agenda and there are often very simple ways of tackling these issues (well-designed workplace protocols can go a long way to solving such problems). But what have we, as workplace consultants and designers, thrown in to the mix with our clients that has had the greatest impact in terms of buy-in?
Shared social spaces. Not rocket science.
Shared, quality social spaces, particularly the communal staff kitchen and break-out area. We do a significant amount of consultancy work with the public sector and managing expectations is part and parcel of staff engagement. Google-style in-house catering with free, healthy food choices might be beyond the budget of the public sector but providing a well-appointed facility at the physical centre of the organisation is key to winning hearts and minds. It can be even more important when an organisation is distributed over several floors of a building. If an army marches on its stomach, then these days it seems that organisations do exactly the same. Throw good quality, free tea and coffee in to the mix and you are saying to your staff “you are valued”.
Providing an escape from the desk and the ability to prepare your own food or sit in comfort eating bought food is so obvious that it isn’t going to appear on an end of year list of “What’s hot for 2019”. You’d think it was a given, but many workplaces have facilities that are simply not fit for purpose. Sometimes this can mean not big enough or without the right range of facilities (let’s face it, there will always be a debate over whether a toaster is a fundamental human right or an accident waiting to happen); cleanliness comes into it also. Often “not fit for purpose” can mean that it’s actually too designed and not user-friendly. How many times have integrated refuse and recycling bins been quickly replaced with bulky free-standing items because the carefully-designed solution just gets in the way of the cutlery drawer.
So why the need for these spaces? Community. Health & Wellbeing. Staff Experience & Expectations.
Once an organisation increases beyond a certain size (often dependent on the sector) there is a real risk that you will not know what all your colleagues do. Dunbar’s number of 150 springs to mind. You might only bump into a colleague at the Christmas party and then go a whole year without speaking to them again. By making distributed tea points functional and the central facility a destination, you increase the opportunity for a community spirit to be developed. A burgeoning community spirit a great space raises the potential for more social events; one thing leads to another.
Not everyone has a smart-desk or Fit-bit watch that reminds them every 45 minutes to get off their backsides and move. We all know we should be more active (in general) but this is often easier said than done. A welcoming social space with outside views and plentiful daylight, some greenery (let’s not overdo it and replicate Kew Gardens in an attempt to bring down CO2 levels however) and a range of seating options will entice staff to linger, to give their brains a breather and recharge the batteries. If the desk is as welcoming as the social space then people will choose to eat at their desk (they will take less time over lunch and therefore look busier, earning brownie points from their line managers who are not doubt having lunch at their desk also).
The nightmare vision of the staff cafe has Formica table tops, red plastic chairs (ergonomically awful but great for stacking – interior design by the janitor!) with egg, beans and chips every day and an endless number of 4-person tables (of course people are sitting individually); a Ken Loach drama in washed out 1970s tones. Nowadays a basket of fresh fruit (which we get every week in our office) and free tea and coffee is almost taken for granted. We shouldn’t be shocked if a prospective employee asks to be shown the staff social space ahead of the desk where they might actually be working. Again, it is the former that better displays the values of the organisation.
The next time you think of revamping your office and are looking to slash budgets, the social space will be in the ‘nice to have’ column and therefore the easiest to value engineer (a wonderful euphemism). The evidence of how important staff perception of the workplace is suggests that it might be the worst mistake you could make. A ‘happy’ workforce is a more productive workforce. A more productive workforce leads to a healthier organisation in every respect.
You can tell a lot about an organisation from their social space. Come to 140 West George Street, Glasgow and tell us what you think of our space. We are big enough and ugly enough to take any criticism. We will however use any feedback to make our next social space (your next social space?) even better.
We do have good coffee, however.