Sheffield Hallam University has been awarded a prestigious Leesman+ award for the effectiveness of its agile workplace. Gabriella Jozwiak talks to director of estates Mark Swales.
An academic timetabling team, electrical engineers, events management and surveyors are among the staff at Sheffield Hallam University working together in one of the most flexibly-designed workspaces in the world.
The institution’s Bryan Nicholson Building is the first academic site to win a Leesman+ award, which measures employee productivity and workplace effectiveness.
Some 140 workers are located in the former solicitor’s office, which the university’s estates and facilities team aimed to transform into a more agile and spacious environment with no desk ownership.
They spent 18 months preparing for the staff relocation by identifying five work streams to feed into the proposals, as director of estates and facilities Mark Swales explains. These involved staff in the decision-making process as much as possible.
“We did a big piece of work around e-processes – minimising the amount of paper that we need to use in the workplace, getting rid of paper-based systems, automating processes, and using electronic document storage,” he says. “The second strand was document storage itself – how much storage did people actually need to do their work?”
The team discovered one linear square metre was enough – which became the amount of space they allocated to each employee. They also trained staff in an electronic document storage system and moved to a SharePoint web application platform, which combines functions such as document storage and meeting agendas.
For the third strand, the estates team introduced roaming desktop technology, to enable workers to log in to any computer. They now use Bluetooth-enabled head pieces rather than fixed telephones.
An activity-based environment focus helped Swales discover what space workers actually needed to carry-out their jobs. “That brought up things like being able to do collaborative working across different disciplines, or being able to access IT on large flat-screen televisions around the project table,” he says. “Being able to have stand-up tall tables so you could put out things like estates plans and diagrams of wiring, to envelop-stuffing mailshots for international students or events.”
The final strand considered how not having a desk would impact on employees’ health and well-being. Staff feedback led Swales’ team to include cycling facilities, personal lockers, showers and clothes-drying cupboards on the site. “We talked about the whole cycle of work – coming in, going home and the work in between, in an holistic way,” he says.
Although the footprint of the new building is the same as the office previously used by its resident staff, Swales says it has much more flexible space. This includes project table space and a social area on the ground floor, which provides facilities for both lunch and informal meetings. Sofas, high stools and open-plan environments have replaced office desks and bookcases. Swales says the average ratio of desks to workers is eight to ten.
Swales called in workplace effectiveness indexing company Leesman to provide data showing physical changes to the workplace had made a positive impact on staff. He wanted to convince university bosses to implement similar changes within other departments.
Leesman surveyed staff using an 11 minute-long online questionnaire to assess people’s satisfaction with their working environment across 90 areas. These included workplace features such as natural light, noise and temperature control, and facilities such as cleanliness, security, refreshments and IT. It used the results to generate an effectiveness score.
Sheffield Hallam’s score was among the top 4% of the more than 138,000 buildings surveyed by the company. Having achieved a score of 56.1 before the relocation, the new building earned a 70.1 grade. The institution is the first university to win the Leesman+ accreditation, which the surveyor awards to workplaces that achieve a score of 70 or more.
“The thing that the Leesman survey identified was the increase in productivity that staff felt they were able to deliver on because of their working environment,” says Swales. “This has had a significant impact on the well-being and productivity of the people involved. People feel very positive about their workspace.”
Further organisational benefits
Swales says the changes have also brought other benefits. They help attract talent when recruiting and will also make future staff restructures easier. “If I restructure my department, I don’t need to worry about where people are going to be sitting and what the impact is going to be on the workspace,” explains Swales. “The whole building belongs to everybody.”
He hopes the success of the Bryan Nicholson Building will lead to further workspace redesigns in other parts of the university. Leesman is currently carrying out research in two further buildings on the campus – a refurbished office and a new build. “By Christmas time we’ll be running the survey again and will be able to see what the impact has been on the academic staff,” he explains. “We’re using it as an on-going tool to measure the impact of our investment on the estate.”