What change management strategy should be put into place when introducing the Flex Office configuration?

The 2019 Actineo study revealed that only 14% of French companies were using the Flex Office configuration. For the 86% of companies that remain, it’s possible that the rejection of this sort of reconfiguration is coming from either direction, or from the employees themselves (concerns of changes to their habits, noise disruption and forced proximity to their coworkers, etc.) It is therefore necessary to put measures and practices in place for change management so as to reduce the employee resistance and concern. This will facilitate a company’s organisational transition from its current set up to the configuration of a Flex Office work environment.

An average of 30% of employee office spaces are physically unoccupied daily due to many different reasons. These can include, but are not limited to, working from home, sick leave, approved leave etc. The unoccupied space incurs a huge operating cost to companies, second only to potentially their payroll. Modelling an office space around the Flex Office idea seems to be the best solution. But what exactly does this type of organisation look like? 

The idea of the Flex Office concept originates from the early 2000’s. It first began within American consulting firms, as their answer to the increasing price of real estate in some of the larger cities such as New York or Los Angeles. These companies understood that a Flex Office organisation style allowed them to economise their office space whilst continuing to favour their dynamic collaborations, creativity and employee productivity. Over the years the Flex Office concept spread further and further across the United States, and several large-scale International Companies began to also adopt this solution. Having said this, implementing a new style of organisation, such as this one, requires companies to carry out real organisational change. 

The 2019 Actineo study revealed that only 14% of French companies were using the Flex Office configuration. For the 86% of companies that remain, it’s possible that the rejection of this sort of reconfiguration is coming from either direction, or from the employees themselves (concerns of changes to their habits, noise disruption and forced proximity to their coworkers, etc.) It is therefore necessary to put measures and practices in place for change management so as to reduce the employee resistance and concern. This will facilitate a company’s organisational transition from its current set up to the configuration of a Flex Office work environment. 

flex office
Flex Office Presentation

The Flex Office work model can be defined as: the removal of physical barriers and pre-assigned workspaces, giving employees the opportunity to choose from the free spaces available, the one that is most suitable to their work assigned tasks, and personal requirements.  

Source: Systencia  

Workspace configuration analyses

flex office

Source: Shalini K., Thérèse S., Suzanne M. et Nathan T., 2018 

Technological innovations, the evolution of how we communicate, and our ways of working have led to a modification of the work environment over the last couple of years. To guarantee that this new environment is adequate enough to meet the standards of these new approaches, the flexible workspaces concept is often preferred and adopted by companies who favour the “project mode” and cross-functional management. The modification to the companies and to the employees work environment is possible, thanks to organisational change. This, however, requires a great deal of preparation.

In order to promote organisational change, and so that it is able to take place in the best conditions possible, change management, as well as the implementation policy, must be taken into account. The managers that are accompanying employees throughout the change must differentiate their practices in accordance with the profile, the needs and hierarchical level of the employee concerned.  

We can then, therefore, deploy several different types of change management strategies to assist the employees in a favourable adoption of the new configuration.

Developmental, transitional, transformational 

flex office

Source : Richard Soparnot, 2013 

We can distinguish three main actors in the organisational change to Flex Office within a company:  

  • The Direction   
  • The Employees 
  • The Unions 

It’s important to remember that an organisational change like Flex Office is not a simple installation. It is necessary to prepare and plan the methods of implementation commonly viewed in the form of these two investment categories. 

  • Material investments e.g., renovating the office premises to remove the barriers between workspaces, eliminating closed spaces, installing different types of equipment such as adapted desks, chairs, connectors, telephones, and investing in the common areas. 
  • Intangible investments e.g., software related to improving communication: Microsoft Teams etc. related to security, VPN, proxy, or different training courses for the employees concerning the use of these software tools, as well as the regulations in regard to working in a Flex Office configuration.  
 Identified risks and challenges

A. Risks for the company and employees

Company level

During the day, employees have the opportunity to spread out within the office, due to the removal of their assigned workspaces. Managers may therefore encounter difficulty with their responsibilities, involving but not limited to: task management, coaching and regarding the overall wellbeing of the company. 

The reorganisation of the office requires a first investment by the company. These configurations incur an initial raise in running costs, however, prove to be more economic in the long term, by removing the wasted space. 

These disruptive changes to habits are likely to concatenate resistance amongst the employees. They may feel like they are losing their comforts, they can no longer personalise their desks and may feel like there is a loss of symbolism. The configuration is no longer ‘personal’ and has now become ‘general’. An employer may experience fear towards this kind of resistance making it therefore important to ensure that there is a change management accompaniment. Ensuring that managers are able to maintain a favourable climate, that keeps change resistance to a minimum. 

Employee level

In a classic work environment, there are always acoustic disturbances, these are however amplified when a configuration model such as Flex Office is employed. These disturbances can generate chronic stress amongst certain employees, to the extent that, they cannot complete their work, as the sound pollution, caused by ringing phones and informal/formal discussion between co-workers is too disruptive.  

The ownership of a workspace, by the simple bias of personalisation is something the company should not choose to neglect. This being said, with a Flex Office style configuration, it is no longer possible for employees to take possession of a desk, as these are no longer assigned and must be vacated. 

A cloud-based organisation system is necessary to ensure the access and portability of information. There are therefore several applications to develop around the employee. Employees will be dependent on these applications to execute the required tasks. A small disruption can and may imbalance the whole process e.g., Wi-Fi connectivity issues, loss of personal contact information. 

With a flex office configuration, the number of potential workspaces within the office is inferior to the number of employees as it is designed to consider the many diverse absences such as leave requests: flex leave, holiday leave, sick leave, as well as working from home (WFH). These limited places can generate pressure amongst the employees, as they are with the understanding that they must arrive early if they would like to choose their assigned seat.  

Following the removal of isolated offices, and the barriers of seclusion between desks, employee privacy is diminished. Within this organisation set up there is a greater flow of visual and noise information within the workspace.  

If we can look at the example of the global Covid-19 pandemic, and the daily concentration of staff in the same office, the circulation of germs and viruses was highly prevalent. If the workspaces and office areas are not cleaned neither adequately nor regularly, there is a high risk of propagation amongst employees.  

These risks have a principal impact on employees, and as a result they are more likely to develop a resistance to change. It is interesting to understand how uniquely different employees are able to act in regard to change. As we can see documented in the table below, there are many different reactions to be had when dealing with organisational change, and the resistance these ensue:   

Types of reactions in the face of change 

flex office

Traduit depuis : Source : Thierry Bontems, Marie-Laure Fourcade, 2018 

B. The challenges of this organisation

It’s interesting to note that, once implemented, the Flex Office configuration improves employee relations. By removing the barriers, we actually favour the dynamic collaborations and collective innovations, that are otherwise limited. Today, in some of the large-scale companies, the work style ‘project mode’ has been democratised and is often recommended. Teams are working more and more cross-functionally, and the Flex Office configuration is able to nurture this, responding to today’s organisational needs.  Also, thanks to the removal of these physical barriers, Flex Office has increased the possibility of meeting one another organically and in consequence the probability of interactions has increased from around 2 to 5.4 times per hour. The increase in this type of interaction results in knowledge sharing, indirect conflict resolution, and a reinforcement of social cohesion by increasing comprehension and understanding across different problems.   

It is therefore possible to affirm that the work environment is also linked to employee satisfaction. The human perception to regard the work environment and perceive it as either negative of positive is then transferred also as to whether they generate, or not, their best performance. The work environment is therefore not a factor to be overlooked nor neglected. To motivate employees in displaying healthy comportments and achieving the best possible results, we must configure this environment in a way that it may be a hub for motivation.  

C. Recommendations to promote the implementation of Flex Office

The participative strategy is based on intensive communication, involving all company employees in building change. This strategy does make the process longer, however, by involving the employees, they become committed, and changes are made to be of quality and durability.  

It is recommended to act simultaneously on the three change management levers: 

  • Communication: this describes the act of giving meaning, all whilst facilitating the employee awareness and evolution of engagement.  
  • Training: this grants the employees the knowledge and competences required to ensure the proper functioning of the new organisation. 
  • Accompaniment throughout the transition: personalised support for each employee, ensuring a constant monitoring so that no one is left behind during the transition phase.  

It’s necessary to apprehend any individual employees that are fearful or resistant, they must express their concerns in the discussion groups so as to assist in building their solution (participative strategy).  

Below are the groups of individuals that can present as an obstacle to organisational transition:  

  • Individuals that are at the origin of the current working methods 
  • Individuals who prefer a solution other than that of the Flex Office configuration 
  • Individuals who are the most involved in the current organisation set-up  
  • Individuals who are attached to their desk, and the ability to personalise it  

Once the changes are in place, it is necessary for them to be embedded within the company, consolidating all new practices, and inscribing them within the mores. This is also to avoid future resistance and fears in the changes to come.  

To avoid the risks of widespread resistance during the transition, it is important for companies to ensure a constant, quality accompaniment of employees who need it most. Certain employees require monitoring for fear of overwhelming them with too much information.  It is therefore a recommendation to companies that they invite the participation of employees in the changes, providing an optimal level of information and considering their different remarks (where possible).  

Antoine Mancini

Antoine Mancini

HRIS expert

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