Using behavioral strategy in workplace design

If you’ve ever wondered why grocers keep milk in the back of the store or why car showrooms have such high ceilings, Kristi Woolsey can tell you: These are intentional space designs created by behavioral strategists — like her — to influence what you buy. Woolsey, an architect, designer, and consultant, has spent much of her career helping organizations unlock their potential through what she calls “the power of sentient space.”

How someone feels about their environment influences how they behave. For example, milk in the back can lead to shoppers purchasing other items on the way to the fridge. While high ceilings in car dealerships influences conceptual thinking, allowing you to more easily imagine yourself in a new car. These behavior strategies are critical not just for selling products and services, but also for fueling productivity and employee engagement in the workplace. Woolsey started focusing on workplace space about a dozen years ago, when Wi-Fi started to become ubiquitous, driving the gig economy and enabling more employees to work remotely.

“There are a whole lot of ways to make behavioral strategy much more tailored to the individual by combining both digital tools and physical spaces.”

– Kristi Woolsey

“I realized that work was about to need the same kind of behavioral strategy that retailers had been using,” says Woolsey, the associate director and lead for the Smart Environments Group at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), based in Pittsburgh.

Just as a retailer or restaurant needs to entice a customer to come to their location, Woolsey saw that employers would need strategies to lure employees to work in their workplace particularly when they had a choice to work from almost anywhere else with a laptop.

“I did a lot of teaching people about what the future would look like, and what the implications for them might be,” she says.

As technology advanced, Woolsey’s work evolved to include the role technology and physical space play together in attracting and retaining workers. Her job today is helping organizations figure out what spaces, designs, and technology they need to thrive in the future of work.

“There are a whole lot of ways to make behavioral strategy much more tailored to the individual by combining both digital tools and physical spaces,” she says.

The COVID-19 pandemic thrust many organizations into that future of work a lot faster whether they want to be there or not, Woolsey says.

“It accelerated the world into the scenarios that I was painting for people 10 years ago. And what’s interesting about this moment in history is it’s just like 10 years ago: We don’t really know what’s coming,” she says.

Start With the Employee Experience

For organizations struggling with how to structure the future workplace, Woolsey recommends focusing on the employee first: What does he, she, or they, want in their working environment both in the workplace and from home?

“Thinking about the employee is creating an employee experience,” Woolsey says. “Technology and physical space have to work together to enable that experience.”

She encourages organizations to start with research, understanding the opportunities and pain points for employees for both in person and remote work. The second step is to design the ideal experience. The third is to think through the enablers of that experience.

“What is the best way to deliver it? Is it through placemaking? Is it through a digital tool? Is it through a service? Is it through a combination of all three?” she asks.

Regardless of the answers, Woolsey says the experience needs to be “the driver and the touchstone” for how the space is designed.

“If you have more physical space, maybe you need less digital space. With more digital space, you might need less physical space. But you’re thinking about those two kinds of space as the one continuum,” she says.

“There’s almost an imperative that people think about adding flexibility to the way that they work so that they can attract and retain the people they want.”

– Kristi Woolsey

Space as a Recruitment Tool

A recent global BCG survey shows 60% of employees are looking for flexibility in work schedule, location, or both.

“Lots of people miss the social interaction. They miss the collaboration. Most people don’t want to work completely remote, and they also don’t want to go back to five days a week,” Woolsey says.

It’s results like these that have many organizations scrambling to figure out what the hybrid future of work should look like so they can find and keep top talent.

“When we think about the talent strategy side of it, there’s almost an imperative that people think about adding flexibility to the way that they work so that they can attract and retain the people they want,” Woolsey says. “It’s also a real opportunity for diversity and inclusion.”

One solution Woolsey sees is a trend towards activity-based workplaces, where there are different places and spaces to work, from assigned desks to café-style seating areas to private meeting rooms.

“You have to have a much more flexible use of space,” she says, as well as the right technologies to enable the hybrid home and workplace options.

For instance, some organizations are investing in software that enables employees to book workplace space from home, so they have a designated desk when they arrive. The technology might also have sensors to show when a person has left a space, so it can be cleaned and sanitized for the next user.

The data from that technology can also help organizations figure out their space needs and make adjustments as required. For example, if you put in two couches and the data shows only one is being used, the other one can be replaced with a desk or a conference room, she says. The space and technology will also need to be used to engage employees working from home, so they still feel like they’re part of the team.

“It’s easy to have everybody at the office in person and feel like a team and it’s really easy to have everybody remote and feel like a team. It’s really hard to level the playing team [in a hybrid model],” Woolsey says. “To do that, you need to be thinking about the experience.”

That adjustment could be a second screen in a conference room so that remote participants aren’t turned off when a PowerPoint presentation goes up, or more than one camera in the meeting room so remote workers can see the speaker and the reactions.

“Again, this comes from really thinking about the employee experience,” Woolsey says. “What is it like to be hybrid, where some people are in person, and some people are remote? And what are the pain points? What does not work? And how might we solve that, to stay front in technology? You really have to think about those questions.”

Some organizations are even giving employees a budget, and some recommendations, to set up their home workplace in a way that helps them be comfortable and productive. For Woolsey, the solutions should go back to thinking about what employees want before changing the real estate.

“Real estate is an enabler — it’s not the goal,” she says. “Some of the more progressive organizations are paying attention to this notion that employees now have way more choices of where to work. And that they’re going to have to deal with competition for employees, coming from a lot of new places. If you want to keep the best and brightest, you’re going to figure out how to keep them.”

Becoming More Experience-Focused

The challenge for organizations in the near term will be bringing back employees who may have become accustomed to the routines of working from home amid the pandemic.

“I think changing behavior will be way harder than changing the building,” Woolsey says. She recommends organizations start communicating the comeback well before the pandemic is over.

“This is a moment of opportunity, if you want to grab it,” she says. “There are so many companies right now that have internal or external teams that are already thinking about this: what is the future of work post-COVID? And then what does the workplace look like in that future? This is the time. You need to be having these conversations right now.”

As for the building industry, Woolsey says the successful architects and developers in the workplace market will be those who have an employee-first strategy.

“At the end of the day, this isn’t about real estate: It is about creating employee experiences that deliver value to both the employee and the organization,” she says. “And so we have to become, in many ways, less object-focused and more experience-focused.”

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