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MSc (Workplace Consultancy) – why not?

Posted on Tue, 2020-03-24 10:25 by Chris Carr

thought piece: It’s the time of year for UCAS submissions to be finalised before the January deadline. Will we see universities offering degrees in Workplace Consultancy any time soon? What would the course cover?

“…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.”

Emerging technologies’ impact on society & work in 2030

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 to 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’.

Interior Design
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 from 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 this 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.

English Language
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. Being 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.

Research Methods
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 – peopleplace 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 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 as is knowing what is appropriate for the particular client.

Mechanical Engineering
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 in the taught portion. Perhaps local private sector consultants could deliver some of 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.

Chris Carr
December 2018