Building a Hybrid Workspace for the Future
Long before the pandemic, Canada’s Fraser Health Authority saw the need to transform its workplace. For years, company executives pondered how to adapt its physical space in ways that would rein in lease costs and align with new ways of working. But after coronavirus-related lockdowns forced organizations around the world to master remote working overnight, the ensuing pivot accelerated Fraser Health’s plan.
The vision? To create a hybrid environment that would promote a healthy work-life balance and help the organization reimagine an office space that could be used more efficiently—and evolve with the future. While other organizations were still puzzling over hot-desking and VPNs, Fraser Health launched its CA$450,000 strategic initiative in May 2020.
“COVID was clearly the event that brought this project to the forefront in a very dramatic way,” says Larry Harder, executive director, facilities management, projects and planning, Fraser Health, Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. “It provided a rare opportunity to rethink how we define what the ideal work environment looks like and its effect on long-term leasing strategies.”
By April 2021, the company promoted Martine Janicki, PhD, PMP, to become its first manager of space management, then placed her in charge of implementing the overhaul of an HQ space that was a familiar tight mix of conventional workstations, private and shared offices and meeting rooms. But her team had just five months to make it happen.
“There was very little time to prepare and plan and give every department the space they need,” Janicki says.
A Shared Experience
Because the change initiative would affect every employee—and every aspect of how work got done—team members doubled down on stakeholder engagement to earn buy-in and establish a fluid baseline for requirements. They gathered feedback from senior leaders in 44 departments through quantitative surveys and in-person sessions. Those insights helped project leaders gain a firm understanding of how spaces could be tailored to meet department needs, such as requests to boost collaboration and facilitate new working styles while still retaining proper storage.
To ensure the requests could be translated into functional benefits, the team cast a wide net to engage with external specialists, such as furniture suppliers, IT experts and change management consultants. In all, the team had to reformat 1,315 standard workstations, repurpose 640 storage cabinets and convert 153 meeting rooms.
The scope included modifying or eliminating workstations so that all were at least 6 feet (1.83 meters) apart, a distance inspired by COVID-19 safety protocols. The team also converted some private offices into spaces that could be reserved on demand by those working on-site to conduct virtual meetings.
“In an open-concept office, these calls are quite disruptive for nearby staff, so the shift from a private office, assigned to an individual, to a shared status whereby a number of people can benefit from acoustic privacy was a major gain,” Janicki says.
To maximize collaboration amid the hybrid shift, the team created 44 separate “neighborhoods” within the space. It implemented a mix of workspaces: Employees who need to be onsite have assigned desks, while others reserve a desk on their in-office days via an online system.
Agility in Motion
But making these changes final wasn’t fast or easy. Amid shifting priorities and ever-changing public health and safety recommendations, “there was a high level of uncertainty for space requirements based on information received from senior executives,” says Martine. “Space mapping was in a constant state of change.”
Eventually, the team set a cut-off date for stakeholder input so project leaders could lock in requirements and begin to implement all changes.
But other disruptions meant the team still had to be able to pivot on demand. For example, the organization’s workforce composition was also evolving rapidly. The team would create one site map only to find the headcount had shifted before the plan could be fully reviewed.
“It became quickly apparent that some teams were growing rapidly,” says Janicki. “The allocated space did not fully support the work on-site, so space allocation had to be adjusted several times—and still continue to this day.”
To ensure the flurry of demands didn’t overwhelm the team or knock the project off schedule, project leaders established a clear change-request process, which helped team members quickly assess, approve and implement any suggestions that became must-haves. Employees quickly put the new system to the test, with “a high volume of requests for space expansion,” says Janicki. “It became apparent that the ability of staff and leaders to share space and let go of their desks was difficult.”
Although many of the changes were a reaction to the pandemic, project leaders forged ahead with a proactive mindset throughout to seed and sustain long-term buy-in.
For example, Janicki leaned on a change management consultant, to “support the people aspect of the transformation project.” Top-down support was mission critical for driving adoption. In an effort to manage up, the project team worked with sponsors on two shared-space model presentations to the organization’s executive directors—showing how the C-suite could become key change agents and facilitate enterprise-wide buy-in.
“Our team did an awesome job bringing these emergent issues into play in real time, and it continues to have an ongoing impact,” Harder says. “The main reason this was possible was executive-level support and that bit of freedom an emergency project provides.”
As part of their omnichannel communication plan, project leaders emphasized the project’s strategic vision. They also spelled out requirements in ways that showed how the changes would benefit all employees—boosting collaboration, productivity and engagement, for instance. Through email, informal sessions and large-scale town halls, the team ensured that everyone had adequate time to review information and follow up with questions. The team also created a company intranet page that shared basic information on hybrid workstyles, space guidelines, a reservation system training video and FAQs. And once people began using the new space, the team actively sought feedback to resolve any immediate problems.
“We hope that one of the long-term benefits is employee retention and attraction, making Fraser Health the employer of choice over other Health Authorities in British Columbia,” Janicki says.
After completing the project on schedule, the team’s success is providing a template for other healthcare organizations in Canada. Since the team formally flipped the switch to hybrid on a three-day weekend in September 2021, Fraser Health has been sharing lessons learned from its space management initiative with Vancouver Coastal Health, Vancouver Island Health, Provincial Health Services and Alberta Health.
“The financial and productivity benefits were quickly realized and will hopefully bring awareness to other organizations,” Harder says.
Yet, the need to adapt workspaces likely won’t end. That’s why, as part of the project retrospective, the team continues to sift through documentation for insights that could help refine work environments in the future, says Janicki.
“We want to continue to ensure that our approach incorporates the learning and values of the organization, capturing the essence of the new work style at Fraser Health.”