To prototype or not to prototype?

Stephen Minnett


As organisations move towards new more agile ways of working undertaking a prototype area or pilot study can be an important part of the process. A pilot study provides an opportunity to test and verify different aspects of a new workplace design before committing to the construction of the full workplace.

Workplace design for many organisations has increasingly become concerned with more than the physical space. Enlightened organisations realise that to maximise the productivity of their people in a new workplace equal attention has to be paid to:

  1. The physical environment
  2. The IT and technology that support work
  3. People’s behaviours in the workplace

When all three come together an organisation can then be at its most effective. If an organisation is undertaking substantial change a pilot study can be an invaluable way to test, measure and fine tune new provocative ideas in a relatively safe way.

If an organisation’s new workspace is of little difference to its existing workplace then a pilot area may have little value. The more the intended shift in the workplace paradigm the more useful a pilot study becomes. Nearly all organisations that have implemented radical new workplace solutions (e.g. Microsoft, Jones Lang LaSalle, Macquarie Bank) have realised the benefit of a pilot study and invested the time and cost required to maximise these benefits.

A pilot study is the first physical manifestation of a new workplace strategy. To gain the maximum benefit from a pilot study a thorough evaluation of the existing workplace and its performance is very important. This evaluation should include as a minimum:

  1. An audit of the existing space and its efficiency
  2. A user study to understand patterns of behaviour and space usage
  3. An engagement with staff to measure their satisfaction with the space and how well it supports their work

The information gained will form part of the understanding that underpins the future workplace strategy, but will also be invaluable as a “base line” measure to assess the pilot study performance in the future.

In a pilot area diverse furniture solutions and work settings can be trialled. Many organisations are understandably reluctant to invest in radically different workplace settings without first seeing how well they perform for their people. A pilot study gives the opportunity to test not only the elements (perhaps basic desking and task chairs) but also more radical ideas that support different ways of working. Through early engagement with a systems furniture supplier different products can be loaned, trialled and evaluated before a final commitment is made. This process can also form an important link in the staff communication and engagement process – the ‘real thing’ is often easier to comprehend than architectural drawings, 3D visuals or concepts.

Recent advances in technology enable much greater mobility of people and where and how they work. This mobility can enable radical changes in how people undertake their day-to-day work. Many organisations are now realising the full potential of technology and how it facilitates new,  diverse types of interaction. Technology in the workplace once defined where work was done (i.e. at your desk with your large fixed desktop PC and CRT monitor) but now it has the potential to do the opposite;  to be mobile means work can be done anywhere and at any  time. If a new workplace will be implementing new technology as an enabler of these ideas a pilot study can provide the right environment to test and fine-tune the potential solution.

Many organisations readily understand the benefits of trialling physical workplace elements and new technologies. However they often underestimate the importance in trialling new behaviours that an agile workplace can offer. In a workplace that is transitioning from a traditional workplace to an agile environment that addresses the specific needs of the business, changes in behaviour that may need to be adopted can include:

  • Not working in the same place every day
  • Having a smaller amount of storage in a locker rather than a large amount of personal storage at their own desk
  • Transitioning to using much less paper
  • Having a choice as to who you sit with
  • Having a choice of different environments (often with different levels of formality and privacy) in which to undertake different tasks
  • Having technology that enables you to work from anywhere
  • Developing different types of monitoring work outputs (as old supervision paradigms may not apply)
  • Removal of status in space allocations (e.g. the individual offices or privileged positions many organisations provide in traditional workplaces)

A pilot study also allows testing of the ratios of different settings that are provided to support teams. Through the briefing process considerable information on space utilisation, workstyles and culture can be obtained but until the solutions are tested the ratios of different settings provided may not be ideal.  A pilot space will allow people to develop the appropriate behaviours to make the new space and technology effective. It can also provide a vehicle for developing the appropriate protocols, rules and guidelines for using the space before they are adopted across a large organisation.

For people who have spent considerable time working in a traditional environment some of these changes may be difficult  - e.g. moving from individual ownership of space that you could personalise to team ownership. Conversely newer employees who may have recently graduated from a progressive tertiary institution may intuitively adapt easily to new agile work models.

The incorporation of a pilot study into a project process is extremely difficult within a conventional project programme.
A prototype needs a significant amount of time to build (typically 6-8 weeks) and then it has to allow people to occupy it for enough time to allow the prototype to test, evaluate and modify the solution proposed (typically 6 months as a minimum). The amount of time required can vary greatly and a critical factor is the quality of the research and engagement leading up to the pilot implementation – if these are of a high quality it may be possible to run a shorter pilot programme. If the pilot is used to “cycle” different business units through it the time required for the pilot can be even greater – some organisations will run a pilot for over 12 months in these circumstances.

While a pilot can obviously allow the development and fine-tuning of a potential physical space and technology, its greatest value may be in how it educates people with regard to the new future workplace. It can be used as a critical part of the change management process as well as a training facility for people moving to a new way of working.