Why do workplace transformation projects fail?

By Kim Yong / CBRE | May 31, 2019 7:00 AM SGT
Culture eats strategy for breakfast, as the saying goes, and nowhere is this more apt than in the realm of workplace design. Whether you are doing a refurbishment or building a new office from scratch, design is at the heart of every workplace transformation. But all too often, designers dive into a project without a clear understanding of the organisation’s culture or the problems that need to be solved.
This approach often spells disaster for any workplace transformation. So how can you beat the odds and ensure that your design strategy is a success? Here are four classic mistakes to avoid.
Failing to involve end-users
A common pitfall in workplace design is to get caught up in spreadsheets and statistics on space usage – but this approach fails to capture the complexities of human behaviour. For instance, if you ask clients whether they need more meeting rooms, the answer will most likely be “yes”. A better question to ask would be: “What are you using the meeting rooms for?”
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Imagine a company where employees interact much more frequently with external people than with their colleagues. Logically, this should translate into an office with fewer meeting rooms, since most employees are engaging with clients externally. However, since none of the designers working on the new office is aware of this fact, the end-result is a slew of eight-person meeting rooms that no one wants – or even needs – to use. This type of scenario happens more often than you would think in workplace transformation projects.
A common pitfall in workplace design is to get caught up in spreadsheets and statistics on space usage – but this approach fails to capture the complexities of human behaviour
This outcome could have been avoided if the designers had asked employees about their actual work patterns and involved them in the design process from the start. After all, if you don’t take the time to engage with people and understand what is important to them, how can you expect to truly reflect their needs in the workplace?
Choosing aesthetics over functionality
Too often, design is primarily viewed through the prism of aesthetics, with functionality serving as an afterthought. How many times have you seen an open collaboration area that is decked out with low coffee tables, soft pendant lighting and cushy seating? While these spaces may look aesthetically pleasing, they are not especially conducive to getting any real work done.
Since the tables are too low, you would have to work hunched over your laptop, with poor lighting and probably no power socket in sight – a far from ideal situation. Many designers tend to focus on details such as the colour of a sofa or the texture of a table; but workplace design is about questioning whether there should be a table at all. In the end, it boils down to one simple question: Have you designed the space in a way that encourages people to actually use it?
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Lack of leadership endorsement
Often, the most powerful transformational tool starts from the top. It’s not enough to simply get the green light from leadership; any successful transformation requires a genuine commitment to the project. When leaders believe in the vision for their future workplace, they will take ownership to ensure the design process is properly executed.
For example, a leader who neglects design review meetings is likely to feel disconnected from the overall workplace strategy and to act in a counterproductive manner, such as requesting changes that contradict the original vision. This half-hearted commitment often causes multiple design reiterations, which negatively disrupt the project in terms of cost and time.
In situations like the above, it is important to ensure strong governance by setting up a team that will constantly engage with senior leaders, so that they can be held accountable for their participation in the project. The greater the level of leadership involvement, the more successful the workplace transformation will be.
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Discounting cultural factors
A key tenet of good workplace design is to be attuned to cultural specificity. There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to design, and it’s unwise to assume that what works for an office in Sweden will work for an office in Singapore.
Let’s take the example of a designer who was parachuted in from overseas to work on an office in China. This designer decided to put square tables in all the breakout areas – which at first glance might seem like a fairly anodyne choice. Unfortunately, he failed to take into account the cultural preference for round tables in China, especially in a communal dining context.
This lack of cultural awareness resulted in fewer people using the breakout areas – a textbook “design fail”. By designing according to his own aesthetics instead of taking the time to understand his audience, he botched the brief.
What is the one common thread linking these design failures? In essence, it all comes down to a lack of communication between workplace design and change management teams. For any workplace transformation to be successful, design should form an integral part of the change journey. If your design team is working in a silo, you are doing it wrong.
A more effective approach would be for the change management team to engage with end-users through leadership interviews, focus groups and surveys, and to transmit this valuable information to the design team. Designers could then weave end-user feedback into the design process, ensuring that the organisation’s business and cultural needs are met. This is why fostering a consistent dialogue between change managers and designers is so crucial.
It is not enough to change the design of a physical space; you need to change people’s behaviour too. By involving employees from the very start, you can transform them into active participants in the change journey, instead of resentful bystanders. If they are invested with a sense of ownership in the whole process, they are much more likely to embrace your workplace design strategy and guarantee the success of your project.
Kim Yong is a consultant at CBRE Global Workplace Solutions, Workplace Strategy