Creatif Conversations: 15. Sam Sahni

As lockdown restrictions in the UK begin to ease, many organisations large and small are considering their return to work strategy. To gain an understanding into how some of the world’s largest organisations were adapting to the unprecedented levels of change brought about by the global pandemic we decided to reach out to Sam Sahni – Head of Workplace Strategy and Change Management discipline for global fit-out experts Unispace, in addition to leading their Global Enterprise programme.

Creatif: Unispace are a well- known company and have grown considerably over the last few years. One question at the forefront of our minds – and no doubt a lot of other people’s minds – is how have Unispace partnered with clients to help them navigate the current global pandemic?

Sam Sahni: “It’s an unfortunate time for the world with the pandemic but also it has proven as one of the biggest shifts in the world of work. As you know, we are in the middle of the biggest experimentation that has ever taken place of people working in a very dispersed fashion. Whilst organisations have been trying to make the best out of the time to keep up levels of productivity and engagement, I think this pandemic has also provided the opportunity for the same organisations to re-think how work can be conducted in the future.

We are working with a number of organisations, advising at a strategic level across projects and portfolios, and also working on actual projects in terms of application of what we call the “Propeller” framework – which basically is around how organisations can support the current sentiment of people wanting to continue working from home to a degree but not always.

But as sentiments have drifted and as people have re-learned to use virtual technologies, as organisations have tested that ‘presenteeism’ was a virtue that could be given up – it’s more about output. the sentiment is that working from home, at for one or two days per week, will be seen as normal in the future. So we are advising organisations on what that ‘hybrid model’ looks like, and nomenclature is very important in this – we’re avoiding the term ‘remote working’, we’re using words like ‘balanced’ and ‘hybrid’ working. It’s about achieving the best of both, which is the home and the physical corporate real estate.

It’s about how we work today, how we work tomorrow, where we work in terms of multiple locations, and when we work. A lot of our work with organisations is not just about the workplace the strategy, but equally about the workforce strategy.
We’re in the process of rolling out projects as well – we’re in the midst of our 17th project being rolled out globally on the basis of our Propeller framework.”

Creatif: Could you give us a bit of an example of what the framework is?

SS: “It’s all about designing spaces for people to co-locate in a synchronised fashion with a purpose behind it. And we are identifying those purposes based on different user personas.

Some personas – like me who have kids crying at home – like to go into the office space to focus. So we have to cater for that. Whereas other personas are finding potentially in the instance of hybrid working – specifically in locations like Australia, where things are already returning to a degree of normality – they’re using the home as a good space to focus, balanced with the physical office space which is a space they go to with a purpose, to; innovate, collaborate, problem solve and create better communities.

That is shifting office design, because we cannot just re-design the office with the same brief we had pre-pandemic based on the requirements of post-pandemic.

Creatif: So your Propeller framework is not just based on theory? Could you elaborate on how you gathered your data?

SS: “We’re one of the most forward-thinking organisations with regards to engagement and data collection. Anything we talk about within the market, or advise our clients on, is heavily backed by data – it’s not just theory, it’s led by factual evidence.

We’ve carried out numerous surveys across the globe. For one client – a big biopharma organisation – we sent out our survey to 25,000 of their office-based population out of a total 85,000. The rest of whom were in manufacturing sites or laboratory-environments. It covered 67 countries and it was sent out in 7 different languages.

Within a few days we had 13,500 responses, containing huge sentiment drifts. Pre-data of people saying ‘I would like to work from home at least one day per week’ was 43%. Post-data was around 90%.

For 3-plus days per week it was 13% pre-data, and is now around 50%. So 50% of the population want to work from home 2-3 per week. Nobody said they would like to only work from home all of the time, and nobody said they would like to only work from the office all of the time – hence my comment on my degree on a degree of hybrid, or balanced working.

We also asked questions on ‘what type of activities perform better from either of those locations’, one example being planned scheduled collaboration. This came out as equally performing well from both home and the physical office location.

We asked people if they were given the choice to be able to work from home for say, 1-2 days per week; is your role supportive of that, is your manager supportive, and would you give up ownership of your space in the office should you be given that level of autonomy? The majority of people said yes to all of those because they saw it as a better trade off; that if they’re working from home 1-2 days per week I don’t need to own a desk in the office.”

Creatif: How does geography affect the trends you discovered?

SS: “Some interesting patterns appear. The reasons are cultural, because it might take more than this pandemic to draw out the cultural presenteeism from that particular region. Or the reasons are macroeconomic – in certain cities, like the modern cities in Asia – people are living in smaller apartments and are moving their desks out to roll their bed out so they can sleep at night. Those people just cannot wait to go back to the office so their home life can return back to a degree of normality.

So there are a number of variables involved here; individual perceptions, organisational vision and also macroeconomic elements that our data is throwing at us. And we are building solutions off the back of that rather than just applying a theory from one organisation to another, because that never works. Each organisation is very different.”

Creatif: Absolutely, we can all agree that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. And how are you finding these large organisations are viewing the data that you provide? Are they buying into it? Or are you finding some resistance?

SS: “Unispace typically works with multi-national organisations. They are either well-known brands or up-and-coming brands. Each of those organisations have been thinking about rolling something out to response to the current situation. And that isn’t just because of our data, but because of their own people have been making major shifts.

We have noticed that they already had this thinking in place, but out evidence and data-led approach has only solidified their thinking a lot more. To do something meaningful about it.

We’re getting into a lot more HR-related and technology-related conversations which we are experts at, however our message to those organisations is that; any rollout of a degree of hybrid working has to be an organisational exercise – you will get it wrong if it is a space-related exercise. For it to fully perform, you have to get people on board – both employees and managers.”

Creatif: Do you find that these clients you are working with on a global scale were willing to consider and adapt to change pre-pandemic? Or has the pandemic been the catalyst to actually consider these new ways of working?

SS: “COVID has absolutely accelerated it. Many organisations who believed in the power of co-location and people coming together to get their job done are now changing their mindset with regards to what a degree of hybrid working can provide to their employees so they can perform better. And through this mass experimentation they are seeing this is working. So they are now ready to take the next step towards change.”

Creatif: How is this way of thinking affecting the design of the physical workspace in terms of solutions and products?

SS: “You have to make a transformational degree of change – there has to be a change to the physical workspace to support this.

What we are seeing on most of these projects is we are deconstructing various settings and reconstructing them. A chair still looks like a chair and a table still does what it always did, but the way things come together are very different.

Examples of that are three-side enclosed collaboration spaces with a lot more writable surfaces, acting as ‘stand-up project lounges’ to facilitate quicker collaboration. Spaces that support quicker collaboration for smaller groups in conjunction with spaces that allow an individual to focus – so that you can shift between collaborating and focusing, which helps with problem.

Those are the types of elements we’re rolling out. From a community perspective we are learning from the hospitality sector – how can the workplace provide a meaningful experience for individuals.

I’ve been talking about the concept of ‘Destination Workplaces’ since 2014, which I’ve been big on. I see the current situation only accelerating that; for organisations to deliver those destination-related environments that employees love being in, not ‘have to be in’, from a community perspective. That is coming into our thinking a lot more.

And from Creatif’s perspective, the acoustic elements are critical. When you are trying to focus and when you’re trying to problem solve with your team, you’ve got to have a space you can be in and not having distractions. That completes the purpose of why you’re going in – to find those spaces much more meaningful and drive higher output. All of that thinking is being laid out within design.”

Creatif: When a space is changing and evolving, flexibility and adaptability is key to ensure the user experience supporting the objectives of the organisation. Are organisations becoming more engaged with this?

SS: “Not many organisations can project what their headcount is going to be in two years, let alone five years. Our industry has been working a typical lifecycle of a fit-out of five to seven years. So we’re beginning to see clients ask for a lot more adaptability within multiple elements, and what we’re doing is looking at a ‘LEGO type of approach’, where things can be shifted and changed at a shorter notice and a lower churn cost to support those organisations much better. So absolutely, this is critical.”

» Click here to learn more about Unispace’s ‘Propeller’ framework.

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