What You Need to Know to Build a Strong Foundation to Embed Workplace Change

HOK Consulting professionals explore how to create spaces that can adapt to change while also creating processes that allow for flexibility in an unpredictable future.

Image courtesy of Death to Stock.

New and evolving work environments are continuing to challenge traditional assumptions about the places where we work. Recently in this publication the article “Moving Beyond Open Plan Spaces” explored the evolution of the workplace as society shifts its focus from efficiency-based to experience-based solutions that emphasize employee-focused, immersive-work environments.

On the surface, it would seem this transition would be intuitive given the positive impact a workplace change can have on employee productivity, satisfaction, retention and recruitment. Yet this is not always the case. Conventionally designed work environments are steeped in tradition with unwritten rules about workplace hierarchies, practices and expectations. Regardless of how wonderful a transformed environment could be, people have a hard time letting go of what they know.

For example, over the past decade many organizations have adopted—with mixed results—workplace solutions that challenge the traditional notion of one desk for each person. These office design concepts, such as Activity-Based Workplaces (ABW) and Neighborhood-Based Choice Environments (NCE), encourage movement and allow workers to choose the right environment for the task at hand—from spaces for quiet, individual work to gathering spots for collective brainstorming. Many of the same organizations that have implemented these new workplace concepts have also launched change management programs to help staff adapt to their new work environments. So, why isn’t it working in the long term?

A number of large scale organizations are looking at this problem. In one instance, the workplace strategy at a global financial services firm had been in place for more almost 10 years, and seemingly had all of the winning components: a thoughtful, activity-based work environment, sophisticated technology tools, alignment with HR policies, and a comprehensive change management process and toolkit. Still, utilization of the news space struggled to move across the 50 percent threshold, and today many of the company’s user groups are still not embracing their choice of environments or taking advantage of the technology. The business, corporate real estate and IT teams are frustrated. Does their workplace strategy need a makeover?

This articles presents lessons learned and best practices taken from organizations that have recently made major workplace shifts. We’ll begin with a look at how these organizations and their teams have effectively planned for change prior to moving into their new workplaces and conclude by examining how they successfully guided long-term change once in their new environments. And, as we’ll discover, when it comes to workplace change, even the best-laid plans can quickly go awry if not implemented both before and after a project reaches completion. 

Preparing the Case for Change  

Successful workplace changes require a foundation that provides direction, sets expectations and establishes accountability for results. Unfortunately, this step is often either skipped or developed with vague and unmeasurable criteria. This is the hard work of preparing for change and requires involvement and endorsement from the highest levels of the organization.

Too often the business case for a project doubles as the case for change and sabotages the entire process. Why? Because the business case for workplace change is almost always financial—be it to avoid costs, reduce costs or improve corporate real estate efficiencies. Yet for workplace change to get wide-scale buy in, the focus has to be about the people—not the dollars. It’s the employees and business units of an organization who will be asked to change and adjust to a new workplace, and often they don’t stand to gain any financial benefits from the disruption. In fact there may be a perception that the workplace change will increase their costs, impact their productivity and take them of their comfort zones.

So where to begin?

The first step is to develop a simple (though not always easy) framework that defines the case for change and establishes how the change will impact each business unit and its employees. Benefits might include greater team cohesion and collaboration, better talent attraction, group adjacencies and improved employee engagement. Improved amenities, enhanced technology tools and healthier workplaces are examples of how a change can benefit individual staff.  Because each organization is unique, the case for change must be connected to its specific needs, focus, culture and business strategies. There are four key considerations in developing a project change charter.

  1. Goals – What is the opportunity being pursued? What pain is being addressed in the business unit or the organization?  What outcomes will be achieved? Why is it important to change, and what are the consequences if the change is not made?
  2. Measures – It is critical to establish measurable ways to track the desired goals inherent in the workplace change. These measurements need to capture tangible progress—such as a percent improvement—which can be assigned a number for quantitative comparison.  For example, while it may be relatively straightforward to say talent attraction is a goal, how will it be measured it as an outcome of the workplace change?
  3. Scope – Clearly define parameters and expectations. What’s in? What’s out? Clarity and definition around what can and will be affected by the change is critical for both the change audience and change team. Communicate the scope of the change early and often.
  4. Critical success factors – What must happen within the organization to achieve the objectives? What are the dependencies and conditions for success? Who is ultimately sponsoring the change, and who is ultimately responsible for it?

The financial business case, as mentioned early, is also critical component—and often the driving force for change. Everyone wants their organization to be financially healthy, so cost savings need not be seen as a negative and should be acknowledged outright. However, in preparing the case for change from a people perspective, the CRE financial impact is better positioned as a desired outcome of the change, rather than its driver.

Establishing Governance

Effective change strategies cannot operate in isolation, and successful implementation is virtually impossible without committed cross-functional representation. The importance of a strong executive sponsor cannot be overstated. Equally important is the engagement and buy-in of formal and informal leaders at all levels of the organization. In order to function well and advance the change initiative, the change team must have clearly defined roles and responsibilities and decision-making structures, with each individual accountable for his or her designated area of influence.

Without a clearly articulated decision-making model, there is a risk that pieces of the project or strategy will feel disconnected, resulting in missed opportunities for integration. Teams must define protocols for communication and approvals early in the process in order to facilitate and coordinate efforts and engagement. With all team members working toward the same objectives and desired outcomes, clear communication and strong leadership will keep your team aligned to achieve your shared goals.

While workplace change is often driven by CRE (and the primary project sponsor is often a real estate executive), many organizations have found it is best to have an executive sponsor from outside of CRE for the change program to be effective and sustainable. These sponsors might be the CEO or the director of human resources—or another business unit executive within the organization.  What’s most important is that this executive sponsor has the authority to lead and influence others, and be visible, committed, and willing to live and breathe the change (i.e. “walk the talk”) that will inspire similar behavior in other executives and leaders.

The executive sponsor role does not need to remain static throughout the project and can work best when it shifts to accommodate progress of the change. For one financial services client my firm worked with, the sponsor at the beginning of the project was the CFO, who also oversaw legal services, facilities and real estate. For our purposes, this was the correct individual throughout the project planning and design phases. However, once it came time to deeply engage staff and leaders in adopting new ways of working and managing, the senior vice president of HR assumed the role of executive sponsor and was instrumental in demonstrating to front-line managers how the change objectives could influence their own success, a.k.a. proving “WIIFU” (what’s in it for us?) that was key to getting wholesale buy-in throughout the organization.

Creating a Change Strategy and Plan

With the case for change defined and a governance model in place, it’s time to create a roadmap to realize the stated goals and objectives. Key to this step is understanding not only the degree of change, but also what impact change will have and what obstacles may get in the way. There are several factors that may influence the change strategy, including organizational culture and structure, leadership styles and people’s individual change readiness. Taking the time to assess these factors will inform a strategy that is specific, targeted and dedicates resources to realize the greatest benefits.

Senior leadership from across the organization should be engaged in evaluating the impact of the change and readiness of the organization. These leaders know the characteristics of their own team’s best and are an invaluable source in understanding the unique culture and readiness of each group. Assessing the change competency across the organization highlights not only the challenges and risks, but also the enablers. An effective change strategy will recruit leaders, managers and employees as champions of the change and leverage their power to influence their teams and peers. It should be noted that relying solely on those that support the change early on may neglect other influencers. Doing the hard work of bringing a particularly influential nay-sayer on board to support the change has an incredible impact that ripples through the organization.

While many organizations may be tempted to focus their change efforts on Millennials and younger staff members, it’s more important to engage their direct managers. Without exception, when employees in all age groups are asked who they want to hear from about change, the answer is their own manager. Helping this group see and embrace how the change will affect them personally, and positively impact their teams, is a crucial for a successful change strategy.

Image courtesy of Death to Stock.

Committing to Engagement

Successful change strategy is always centered on strategic engagement with people at all organizational levels, ensuring the change is something they participate in, rather than something that is done to them. It is wise to be thoughtful about when and how people are engaged. Our rule of thumb? Early and often.

Contrary to popular practice, the most effective change engagement begins before the change is actually defined. We are ultimately designing for people, so they should be engaged in the development process and provide input as to how they work and how they imagine the future workplace. Engaging with people early on allows the design team to make informed decisions and can prevent missteps and revisions later. This has the added benefit of allowing people to take ownership of the change, increasing the likelihood they will adopt and sustain the changes long-term.

There are many ways to engage staff in a workplace strategy or design process, and the organizational DNA uncovered during the evaluation and preparation phases will influence the approach to engagement and guide the selection of the appropriate activities. Co-design workshops, facilitated discussions, cultural assessments, anthropological observation and surveys are all useful tools, but the culture, change readiness, and degree of change within an organization can tell us which combination of these tools (or others) will yield optimal results. The key is to focus on activities that will provide the most meaningful information at the desired depth and breadth and avoid redundancy for participants. Each activity should build on the last and lead to an end goal of synthesis and strategy development.

Once solutions have been developed and the project implementation process begins, the traditional communication plan comes into play. At this point, regular communication can maintain momentum and ensure everyone has the information they need to fully participate in the change process.

As move-in day nears, it is imperative that any questions and apprehensions be managed proactively. We recommend engaging a team to maintain a feedback loop with their groups and the project team. Their mission is to keep a “finger on the pulse” by soliciting input from their teams, listening to their concerns and queries, and sharing these back with the project team so that they can be addressed accordingly.

Sustaining Change – Life After Move-In

One of the biggest mistakes corporate real estate executives make is assuming that the change strategy ends once the new workplace is occupied. Unfortunately, that is not the case and the reason some projects ultimately fail. After the move-in date, it’s important to establish a change sustainment plan.

All of the elements of an effective change management process mentioned earlier—governance, change strategy and planning, engagement—must also have post-project plan in order to sustain the change. Indeed, the most important part of change occurs once the move-in party is over, the project budget closed and the project team on to the next assignment. Humans are creatures of habit and will go to great lengths (often unconsciously) to repeat past behaviors.

To effectively sustain change, those who’ve been involved in the process from the beginning (corporate real estate, facility management, human resources, IT) need to look inward to understand how their own objectives, processes, services and metrics need to adapt.

An example of how change management can go off the tracks post occupancy can often be found among organizations that wish to implement mobile work and desk sharing but fail to change their facility-management intake process for new projects or space requests. So when new staff are hired, the business unit leader contacts facility management to ask for more space/desks. FM responds as it did prior to the change and there is a scramble to find more space.  In this scenario, the process for moves, adds and changes (MAC’s) didn’t change and when FM provides its traditional response, old habits are reinforced.

So what’s the solution? In a new mobile work environment, the process of new hires might include a different on-boarding process that reinforces new work practices, norms and protocols, and enhanced focus on collaboration technology tools. Facilities managers can monitor occupancy, utilization and workplace satisfaction metrics in real time to evaluate whether the shared workspace can continue to support additional users. With these systems and data in place, the facilities manager is much better equipped to have strategic discussions with the business regarding accommodating growth in the organization in new ways.

Post-Occupancy Governance  

Just as before, the executive sponsor plays a critical role in ensuring the key messages about the change continue to be reinforced through the organization. The sponsor must make it clear, too, that business unit leaders are also responsible for implementing change.

In one organization, this meant that maintaining mobile work strategies and metrics related to space occupancy were transferred to business unit directors as part of their personal performance reviews. Long term, this process motivated the directors to stay on plan and not resort to old habits once the project team was gone. It also positioned corporate real estate and facility management to be viewed as trusted partners in enabling the business unit’s success instead of being seen as the “space police.”

Image courtesy of Death to Stock.

Continuous Improvement, Measuring Outcomes

Now that teams are in the new space, it’s time to begin measuring the outcomes originally established. An ongoing and regular assessment should be monitored, both in terms of soft metrics (engagement, satisfaction and culture) and more quantifiable data (utilizations and occupancy targets). Are business units—both leaders and staff—realizing the benefits laid out in the initial project change charter? What’s missing and what else needs to be done?

At this point, a designated change maintenance team can ensure that individuals and groups get the information, training and tools they need to achieve the desired goals of the new space. For one client, this was done by establishing “neighborhood councils” or employees within business units who took on responsibility to reinforce new behaviors and protocols and to negotiate through the growing pains of learning new ways of working.  These councils were facilitated and supported by the enabling groups of HR, IT and FM to ensure they had the tools they needed to support the evolution. Again, the executive sponsor provided the appropriate authority and decision making to enable their success.

Continuing Engagement Long Term

How do you engage employees after move-in to ensure they don’t go back to old ways of working? How do you teach new employees how to work their new environment?

Everyone plays a key role in guaranteeing a workplace change sticks. Involve employees in the process of solving issues and offering solutions so that they feel they’re part of the change. For example, getting the neighborhood councils to assist in the development of space-use protocols and etiquette went a long way in making them feel like partners in the change process.

It’s important that new employees understand the value the organization places on the change and what their role will be in contributing to its success. This means the orientation process for new employees sets expectations for behavior and helps them understand the principles of their work environment and how to successfully use it to its—and their—full potential.


Change management has become a necessary component in the design and implementation of new strategies in today’s ever-changing workplace landscape. While change management itself has a relatively long-term history, its application in the workplace is still relatively new.

Corporate real estate managers who are planning workplaces for the future are challenged to create spaces that adapt at the speed of change, and to create processes within their organization that enables them to be nimble in responding to an unpredictable future. Taking a thorough approach to strategic change will not only contribute to more successful projects, but can increase the change capacity of the entire organization by providing repeatable methods, tools and structures that become an integrated part of cultural assumptions or “the way we do things around here.” With this added value, corporate real estate and facilities professionals can further enhance their role as strategic partners in their organization.

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