The agile workspace has become a common topic of conversations for business leaders. But every company’s execution of the agile workspace has its own unique stamp.
For Sun Life, a move of its global headquarters in Toronto to its new One York Street location provided the perfect opportunity to build the agile workspace from the ground up as part of its Bright Work global branding initiative.
According to Mark Saunders, chief information officer, the company had previously operated out of two sites for many years. “It was really becoming a barrier to collaboration.”
That was one motivation for reconsidering the workspace configuration. The other was even more relevant for today’s work environment. “In studying people’s work patterns on any given day, only two-thirds of the workforce actually occupied their assigned offices,” Saunders says. “They were either travelling, on vacation, going to client meetings or working from home. That led us to create a more open, flexible and adaptive space environment. In other words, designing something that was fit for purpose.”
A key part of the plan was developing a highly interactive environment that swapped out office space in lieu of more than 400 collaboration and meeting rooms, an efficient new shared workstation model and a dedicated in-house innovation hub called Ignite Studio.
The collaboration spaces occupy 17 floors of the building and include a variety of meeting rooms, huddle rooms, open workspaces, cafés and training areas. “They have been designed in a whole range of shapes and sizes and are all technology enabled,” says Carrie Blair, chief HR officer.
Much to their surprise, some groups within the company opted for a completely open and collaborative workspace, she says. “Our legal team decided to have no offices anywhere. That was a first for a group that is traditionally more conservative. But they really embraced it.”
Given that 70 per cent of the Sun Life workforce is agile, the company was also able to reduce its office space requirements from 426 to 214. Those employees deemed agile have a locker where they keep their personal possessions. On the days when they need to be in the building, they simply reserve a space using the company’s reservation system.
With the exception of lockdown situations (e.g. during an internal audit), employees can book anywhere within the building. “If someone is in marketing and wants to sit with the product team they can try do to that,” Blair says. “Before, you were in the same desk every day with your head down. Now people are working together, which allows for some interesting ‘collisions’.”
The Ignite Studio on the 10th floor serves as a living lab, and has been specifically designed to accommodate up to 100 project team members engaged in new product development. “That brings them close, but at the same time, far enough away from the corporate mothership to encourage innovation. Teams can come together to work whatever hours they want in a totally separate environment,” Saunders says.
A plus in keeping a living lab in the downtown core is that it is a significant attraction for technology talent. “A lot of financial institutions have their development and technology people on the fringes of the city. But with Ignite Studio, people are clamouring to work with us. They like the vibrancy of the downtown area, which is now becoming a hub of innovation.”
Blair notes that a key to creating a successful workspace was inviting different areas to design their own spaces. “We really involved employees along the journey, as well as tied in a change management program.” As part of that change management, champions were appointed for each group, who were responsible for receiving proposed ideas, getting feedback from their group, and suggesting changes when required.
Another was combining the input of the technology, real estate and the HR/communications teams throughout the planning stages. “That made a big difference,” Blair says.
Sun Life’s agile workspace design is now being rolled out in other locations worldwide when a space refresh is in order. “So far it has been very well received,” Saunders says.
Now that employees are working in a more agile way, overall feedback has been positive, Blair notes. “Over 80 per cent of our staff think their performance is as good as or better than it was before. They don’t want to go back.”