A Workplace Evolution: Learning from Change

This article is part three of a three-part series about enhancing the way we work at BWBR. The series covers why we are changing; what we are changing; and the results so far

When we transformed part of our office in 2015, we did it with purpose as well as vision: a need to accommodate growth and an idea to see how we could evolve into a more nimble and connected workplace.

Our transformation is well underway (and far from complete). The advantages we’re seeing from FLEX are beyond what we could have hoped. Even so, we still have improvements that we’d like to make and are keeping an open mind. Every day we listen, learn, and adapt – moving towards our goal of becoming a mobile, flexible team of teams.

Measuring and Managing the Change
A key part of our plan is to measure and manage the change so that we continually improve upon what we’re doing. Our approach has been to be as transparent as possible with what we are thinking. We’ve been using staff surveys, small group discussions, and larger workshops to inform people and gather feedback as we go.

As part of this process, our free address pioneers have become change agents and advocates for the FLEX program. They also provide input for how we can improve it. For example, before our office evolution, some of our managers felt the need to sit near their people to manage what they were doing. After discussions, individuals realized they were already effectively managing people who do not sit near them. In addition, we pointed out that good management isn’t about visual oversight; it’s about clear communication and feedback.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s hard to over communicate something like this. The more you talk about it and engage in active listening, the more people understand their opinion matters and informs the process. They have come to support new ways of working as the new normal and have embraced the new work space, as well.

FLEX Choice

FLEX Works Better When People Choose It
Making this a voluntary program helped as we recognized that FLEX isn’t for everyone. FLEX works well for some and not as well for others; nor is it right for all job roles. For example, some roles in our office require referring multiple times per day to large sets of drawings, which are not very portable but, rather, easier to manage with a permanent desk.

Becoming More Connected
A positive result we have heard is that staff feel more connected when working in the FLEX studio. Traditionally, project team members would only interface while sitting next to each other. Now, as part of a more open studio with multiple teams mixed together, staff are making connections beyond their immediate team. It is helping them build relationships, expand their resources and making BWBR a more integrated practice.

Communicating Better across Firm
The firm is also seeing individuals become better communicators. Because free addressers are working anywhere at any time, communication with them needs to be clear and intentional. Additionally, better communication in the office is translating to better communication between our offices and with our consultant partners and our clients. Our most recent survey showed a 15-percent increase in staff who felt “very comfortable” working with mobile teams/team members after just a few months. We anticipate even more growth in this area over the next year.

FLEX Work Bench

An Uncluttered Life
The freedom to move around the office is freeing people from clutter that usually collects at an assigned desk. Free address staff have lockers for personal belongings and files. However, as they fall into their day-to-day rhythm working around the office, they start to forget what’s in their locker and realize they have everything with them. From that comes the realization they don’t need all the stuff, which translates into less clutter and ultimately less stress – a real benefit. They can be productive almost anywhere.

Healthier Creative Employees
Wellbeing is a key part of our culture, and the new office elements are elevating that aim. For example, the environment invites multiple posture options for improving wellness. People can sit at desks, stand, or lounge; they can move locations to a sunny work space or a quiet corner. Even better, everyone in the office experiences FLEX, so everyone has these opportunities. In addition to the physical benefits of changing postures, some staff have noted the mobility increases their creativity and, likely, their productivity, too.

Increasing Space Utilization
The original design for our office remodel planned for about 10-percent growth of staff without adding additional space – about 12 more staff. We grew right past that number and hired about 30 since the planning was started. Interestingly, even though we have about 17 more people on the same floor than planned, we’ve been able to accommodate them because of our FLEX program. A little snug at the moment, but without FLEX we would have been forced to add more space with significant costs.


Sharing Our Learnings
The new FLEX work environment and café is an amazing showcase for others who are wrestling with the same issues to come and learn. The space has opened opportunities to invite people into our office for a conversation about what we’re doing and learning (both struggles and successes) and gain a deeper understanding of their needs and challenges.

Retaining and Attracting Top Talent
As we mentioned in part one of this series, the idea of FLEX transcends generations. It is appealing to both young and experienced talent. People want flexibility to work the way they want or need to work. FLEX has been an interesting differentiator when it comes to recruiting. New talent are impressed by our space and the efforts we’re making to change the way we work.

Opportunities and Questions We Still Have
While we’ve gained significant benefits from free address and FLEX, we still have work to do. Currently, about 15 percent of our staff are free address, so the direct impact is to a smaller percentage of the firm. Our hope is to grow the percentage of free address staff over the next year. In addition, we know there are people who still have reservations about FLEX, so we’ll keep spreading the news and talking about the benefits.

Are we better because of the changes we have made? Are we more productive? Are the solutions we design better? Are we collaborating more, differently, or better? This is what we hope to learn, and our goal is to put tools and measurements in place to better assess that in the coming year. And finally, because we plan to always be evolving into something better, we’ll continue to have open conversations, collect feedback, listen, learn, and improve as we go.

A Workplace Evolution: Shifting How We Work

This article is part two of a three-part series about enhancing the way we work at BWBR. The series covers why we are changing; how we are changing; and the results so far.

Since mid-2015, our office has been a living laboratory, looking at how we, and people in general, can work better by being more mobile and flexible with our work spaces.

If necessity is the mother of invention, our necessity was growth. In the past, the solution to growth would be more space: people equaled desks, desks equaled space, more people equaled more space. This time, we chose to look at the solution by asking a different question. Instead of where we could put more people, we asked how. It not only helped us see how we could grow right, it allowed us to see better how employees work.

Free Address
At any given moment during the workday, 30- to 35-percent of desks in a workplace (including ours) are empty. By looking at desks as something beyond assigned real estate, this “empty” space all of the sudden opens as “shared” space, and the employee assigned a home previously now is free to work where and how they need.

BWBR work desks

This is the birth of free address — where a person no longer has an assigned, dedicated desk or office. They are untethered, not just from a specific location, but from all the stuff, too. In theory, if everyone in a typical office was free address, you could fit nearly three times the people with the same number of desks. Obviously, the math doesn’t quite add up, as not everyone is using or not using desks at the right time.

Free address was where we started, and it not only allowed us to fit more people in the same space, it provided an opportunity to meet goals beyond increasing utilization. It allowed us to enhance how we work, break down the perceived silos to drive cross-team collaboration, and begin building a team of teams to achieve a fully networked organization. For this transformation to succeed, we needed to change, investing in the tools that allow us to do our work: furniture, technology, shared resources, and the space, itself.

We also carefully considered how we managed the change. The amount of change required us to plan for it, talk about it, listen more actively, and adapt as we go.

Changing Minds with FLEX
BWBR’s mobile initiative, FLEX, started with just a small group of people who were willing to give free address a try. They traded in their desk for a locker where they can keep a few incidental things and hang their coat. For them it meant the freedom to choose a space anywhere in the office they could best do their work – a small room or tucked away corner if they need quiet and focus; or, if they need to collaborate with a particular person or team, they can find an area to work nearby. For the firm, it meant freeing up desks and other locations around the office for them to use.

FLEX desk

In fact, FLEX is a firm-wide attitude, more than a free address initiative. We quickly learned that having a few people free address impacts the entire office. We all need to be flexible in how we connect with each other, how we manage ourselves and others, how we find one another, how we support work happening in alternative locations, etc.

Changing Space
The FLEX program, itself, is a bit of an experiment.  As we learn about the impacts, we continue to revise and test again. About a quarter of our office was transformed to be a mostly furniture-based, flexible, open environment. As a need arises, most everything can be removed and replaced with a new piece of furniture.

When you create an open and vibrant environment, you have to balance that with quiet spaces. It is estimated that 50-percent of all workers are introverts who find loud and open work environments uncomfortable. Additionally, there are times when we all need some quiet and focus. We created several focus rooms to give people a quiet space to work, make phone calls, or to have offline conversations.

BWBR Focus Room

Additional alternative work spaces are found in the work café:  booths, lounge, café seating. These options are enhanced through technology and allow the work café to be a popular place for impromptu collaboration as well as individual work. Like a coffee shop, our work café is where people gather…to take a break, to eat, or work the better part of the day in one of the digitally connect booths. The work café is stocked with snacks, including some healthy choices, so people don’t need to leave the office if they need a quick bite. Our staff use this space in a variety of ways throughout the day.

In addition to locations around the office, we created a variety of working spaces to support FLEX. Work counters, casual seating, collaboration clusters, and project bars are located throughout the office. We intentionally designed these spaces to give everyone in the office more choices in where and how they work.

Finally, for all these new types of work spaces, we needed to set some ground rules on how they should be used. These norms are pretty open, erring on the side of being less restrictive so that we can see how spaces are actually used. The norms include suggested use and time limits for touchdown spaces and focus rooms. The norms include some common sense things for shared spaces such as “campsite rules” – leave it better than you found it.

Technology is Key
When we discuss creating a mobile, collaborative environment with our clients, we emphasize an investment in technology as well as the physical space. Strong wireless network, laptops, and cell phones enable mobility. Fortunately, we had a head start on those enablers with our switch to 100-percent laptops about a decade ago and most people already have a cell phone. Most free address staff forward their work extension to their cell phone so they are always reachable. And having a laptop, means they can connect anywhere, anytime, and work.

Evolving as We Go
The transformation is a process. It is never complete. We are learning and evolving as we go. In the next blog post, we’ll discuss how we’ve measured our results, what the results are, how were evolving based on feedback, and if we’re succeeding in enhancing the way we work.

A Workplace Evolution: Enhancing the Way We Work

This article is part one of a three-part series about enhancing the way we work at BWBR. The series covers why we are changing; how we are changing; and the results so far.

Six years on from end of the Great Recession, the scars can still make us feel like we are in recovery. Yet, healing scars create both growth and opportunity to change for the better.

Since the recession, BWBR has rebounded with incredible growth, some years at double-digit rates. Such growth raised questions throughout our operations – onboarding, training, and maintaining quality, among others. The big challenge, though, involved space and culture. Do we simply add more space for more people, or might we use our current space more effectively? Not only was it a question of where to place people, but how might this change the way we work.

Interestingly, these are some of the same questions many of our clients are asking us as well. Our space problem became an opportunity to explore for ourselves, and our clients, solutions that would enhance the way we work, be an employer of choice for the best talent, and improve the outcomes of our designs.

Drive Collaboration across Teams

Historically, our office has been a field of workstations with individuals assigned a desk that’s usually located close to the project team with whom they are currently working. Desks became personalized nests, with all of the normal creature comforts, such as photos and knick-knacks collected over time, along with files and papers from current and past projects.

New project assignments would mean an office shuffle, and individuals would move their nest to a new team location. This approach promoted internal project team collaboration and project specific knowledge sharing. However, it also creates project silos which limit cross-team or interoffice collaboration. If a resource isn’t assigned to your team, you tend to make do without it.

At one of our recent annual cultural retreats (BWBR YOUniversity) we played a game where four teams each drew scrabble letters from a bag and were asked to build the highest point total word or phrase using all available letters. Each team assumed that the only letters they could use were the ones within their team, although no such restriction was given. One team had drawn a Q but couldn’t use it for lack of a U, even though several of the other teams possessed one. The

BWBR office evolution

lesson? Go get the U. If a team needs a resource that’s not officially assigned to your project, go get it.

We are ONE team. One of the goals of our office reconfiguration is to break through the implied barriers between teams and foster firm-wide, cross-team collaboration.

A Team of Teams

Inspired by the concepts explored in Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams, we wanted our physical space to break down the silos and inspire individuals and teams to see themselves as part of a much larger network throughout the office. This means encouraging teams to build relationships and connections beyond the boundary of a project. The outcome is a practice that is more nimble and bold – beginning at the project team level. With physical space that encourages flexibility, and the tools that allow mobility, we’re exploring what it means to be a more connected practice.

Mobility and Flexibility

To achieve this vision meant seeing our office in a different light through the guiding principles or mobility and flexbility. As technology from laptops to smartphones to wireless networks have blurred the boundaries of the workplace, we saw the opportunity to leverage technology to blur the boundaries of the desk. Creating a place where the tethers to a desk are cut allows individuals to go where they can most effectively accomplish the task at hand.

BWBR office evolution

A Learning Environment

There are no-one-size-fits-all solutions, and change always provides opportunities to learn. From employees who will thrive in such an environment to others who may struggle, we now have an environment to learn what roles may be better suited for flexibility and mobility. Working with clients who are embarking on this journey, and explaining to them what they may be venturing into, is difficult to do with just words. Having a living laboratory where we can show clients what new ways of working look like has provided an opportunity for enhanced knowledge sharing. Using this first-hand experience to tell our story has allowed us to help our clients write their own story.

Recruit and Retain Top Talent

And finally, we know that our team and industry talent wants this change, too. We need to adapt to retain and attract the best people. The workforce of today is different than the past. They collaborate differently and have different expectations of work-life integration. They expect a workplace that accommodates, and celebrates, those differences. Embracing change allows us to thrive and be relevant in a marketplace that is all about mobility, flexibility, team collaboration, and thoughtful growth.

Continue the Transformation

So that is some of why we are changing. When you read the next articles in this series, you’ll learn about what we changed to enhance the way we work. We’ll also discuss how those changes have impacted the way we work so far. It is and continues to be an evolving inside-out transformation that we’re excited to make.