Thursday, 18 July 2013

You’re a what? A workplace consultant? WTF is that?

Last Tuesday was the summer social of the Workplace Consulting Organisation (WCO). As the night progressed, fuelled by free ale, we succumbed to alcoholic existentialism: "what is workplace consulting ... what do we actually do ... how do we differ from management consultants ... are we needed" basically "why am I here?” and much later “who am I?”. My thoughts here are born out of a hazy conversation with WCO members Conrad Wildsmith, Farrol Goldblatt and Sonny Hasan – who can either claim credit or distance themselves from my ramblings as they see fit.
I have blogged previously on how I became a workplace consultant, but the £64M+VAT question remains "what actually is workplace consulting?". When I co-founded the WCO several years ago we spent much time discussing how to define workplace consulting:
"Workplace Consulting is the professional activity that supports and enables the optimal design and implementation of working environments, ensuring that they are as efficient, effective, expressive and flexible as they need to be”
After much lobbying we even convinced the Wiki-fascists to allow us to post a definition. But the WCO definition is a bit technical for the layman and my elevator pitch to them on what I do for a living still remains a shaky one. I can't just say I'm a designer or architect and watch people nod approvingly. I have to explain "I'm a workplace consultant …" wait for the blank look then continue "I help organisations make better use of their space, either by using it more efficiently to save money or preferably by using it to facilitate a culture/workstyles change and increase business performance".

So, back to our inebriated debate, how do workplace consultants differ to management consultants and architects & interior designers? Well I think of us as the meat in the management-architect burger, and yes sometimes with a little cheese or relish. Or if you prefer, we are the Oreo centre that binds (or bridges) the other two disciplines. We delve in and understand the business and its requirements. We then challenge the requirements (based on wider knowledge of workplace trends) and translate them into architect speak (design brief) or property speak (an accommodation strategy). We help convert the business needs into a desired workspace (either physical or virtual). It is this wide variety of challenging activities that attracts us to the workplace consulting profession.

Most management consultants don't understand or are not interested in space. The big bucks are in business process reengineering and management restructuring not tinkering around with workspace design and layout. Conversely, architects and designers generally are more interested in space than they are in people or business. Workplace consultants understand and are interested in both the business and its workspace.

Workplace consultants draw on a range of expertise and disciplines: interior design, architecture, technology, business, economics/finance, surveying, psychology, ergonomics, socio-demographics, statistics etc. There is no degree course or CPD in Workplace Consulting; we learn on the job and we borrow skills from fellow professionals. Initially we get involved in research, analysis and modelling to inform the strategy and business case; then we may input to space planning, concept design and furniture specification in the brief; we will facilitate workshops, conduct interviews and inform communications during the briefing and change management process, and so on. We are a hybrid animal but also an evolved specialist, a relatively new species, and if we are not careful an endangered one.

If you don't like the burger/cookie analysis above then how about the good old “People, Place and Process” model? There are lots of variations of the 3Ps, such as people- place-performance or people- place-technology etc, but the original is still the best and most relevant for me (either think of technology as a process tool or a component of the place). The American 3Ws is a good 3Ps substitute: workforce, workplace and workflow. The 3Ps has been around and used in FM since the 1980s but I am pretty sure it dates back further (unfortunately Google has failed in helping me to confirm its origins). FM may be considered to offer the integrated management of the 3Ps but the workplace consultant will develop the integrated workplace solution and prepare the organisation for that solution.

I believe workplace consultants are also responsible for bringing together the in-house HR, FM and IT teams who rarely meet together. We understand their individual policies and integrate them into a single workplace strategy. This is especially the case when implementing new ways of working.

Back in the good old days of Frank Duffy and the now sadly defunct DEGW, the workplace consultant could impress the client (the occupying organisation) with a new ways of working strategy i.e. flexible/agile/activity-based working. But it’s not so easy these days. The client is more informed, strategy savvy, they get what agile working is, understand the financial benefits, and now they need advisors to help them implement it. The workplace consultant has gradually become more of a change manager than a pure strategist.

So we are evolving, we have a new defined role right? Unfortunately "change management" is another confusing term. For architects and designers (and PMs) it means the "change order" process, whereas for management consultants it refers to implementing a new business process or structure. So has anyone got a new phrase we can start using? How about "workstyles implementation coordination" or more simply "workplace transition"?

We, workplace consultants, know what we do but are we conveying this well to the rest of the property and construction industry? And how do we do this concisely when our role (and workplace) is evolving. Do tell me how you define workplace consulting and explain it to your friends?


  1. I am here to transform work and workplace in Asia.

    Agreed Nigel - industry is reshaping very quickly - it is all about industrial scale solutions and processes. I have clients asking how to transform work and workplace for 10,20,50 THOUSAND people ... across Asia ... and even Africa. No doubt implementation becoming more critical than strategy!

    Peter Andrew

  2. This is such a good piece - and the title made me giggle alot as that is nearly always the initial reaction ! However I am now appreciating the science, expertise and knowledge that is going into making the workplace so much better. Liz G, Sussex

  3. In somone eager to gain greater insight into this field Nigel, what direction could you point someone wanting to get better acquainted? The experts backgrounds vary from the more popular designers and architects right through to HR, psychology and property. I feel you need an arsenal of skills! I'm eager to both gain a greater understanding and some method to the madness via education. I'd greatly appreciate a gentle shove towards the right door, kindest, amanda

  4. Thanks for this great information. That’s a awesome article you posted. I found the post very useful as well as interesting.
    top strategy consulting firms in india
    management consulting firms in india

  5. Good post! Thank you for remind me who I am!

  6. This is a great post. I like this topic.This site has lots of advantage. It helps me in many ways.Thanks for posting this again.

    Hr Consultancy in Chennai