Is it time that workplace management had a seat at the table?

Criteo’s Head of Workplace Experience EMEA, Mike Walley, takes us on a journey through time – from the ‘humble’ office manager through to the complex and rapidly changing role of today’s workplace specialists. 



Back in the day I was an IT manager. This was before IT was really a thing and we would report to whichever department head had an interest in the subject, or had not ducked quickly enough when the responsibility had been thrown their way. No one could really work out where the responsibility for such magical things as email and word processing should live. Life was simpler back then as there were really only three departments in IT. Helpdesk, Network and Servers.

Server Rooms used to be hot, dark spaces filled with laughably large machines but, gradually, over the years, things became more complex. Email systems became huge complicated monoliths, databases required vast amounts of management and finance systems became the tool upon which the operation of the entire company depended. So the Application Engineer was born to manage it all. 

Networks began to require architects that could envision a spider’s web of global connectivity and, in turn, require engineers who would realise the architect’s brainchild. Then the hackers arrived and security became a huge concern. Finally, just when we thought we could see the edges of the envelope, it all went wireless. Network Engineering was now mainstream.

Helpdesks? Well they grew too. Major ticketing systems helped them manage the volume of calls they were now getting, since we all had computers. Specialisms grew up, teams were created and problems got categorised and sent off to particular groups for resolution (although the first question they still seem to ask is, ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’ Some things never change). Performance data was carefully collated and reported on. Graphs were drawn.

One day, people realised, if you got this stuff wrong and it failed, you could go out of business overnight. Governments made it a legal requirement to do it properly, with sanctions if you didn’t and, in boardrooms all over the world, it was decided that a responsibility of such magnitude needed a seat at the table and the CIO or CTO was born. IT had finally come of age.You can probably see where I am heading with this now…

It used to be that the MD’s assistant ran the office. It was part of the power they wielded. Then it got to be a little too much work and the Office Manager appeared. This person tended to look after the softer side of workplace and would bring in handymen and plumbers etc to deal with the technical issues. Office moves were just an exercise in logistics and office design meant counting how many desks could fit in the space. When the buildings got bigger, we got Facilities Managers. They were quite technical and spent their time with building systems and health and safety issues.

When I first got involved with facilities, the tech company I was with had us reporting to the CIO(!) and it was very building oriented. Technical issues took up most of our time and coffee came in a jar. But over the next few years it began to get complex very quickly. Over and above the usual building management and health and safety responsibilities, new norms developed around ergonomics and wellbeing. The talent war in the tech industries started to heat up as the big players began to suck up all the available workforce. We all found we were competing for talent against beautifully designed offices, great experiences in the workplace and comprehensive wellbeing offerings. Finally, the tech start-ups decided that it was OK to be seriously agile, and so flexing the size of real estate footprints became the norm and deals got fast and complex. We had to step up and get serious. We had become ‘Workplace Management’.

We created specialists. Hard services, events, wellbeing, concierge services, design, workplace analytics – all these elements are now integral to the operation of large workplaces and the concepts are spreading out of the world of tech companies and into that of financial services, pharmaceuticals and other large scale businesses.

Now, just like IT, it is the turn of Workplace Management to be recognised. Leadership should realise that what we do impacts every person in a company and if we get it wrong there are serious consequences. These consequences are not limited to a lawsuit over a Health and Safety failing, but that the environments we create have a bearing on recruitment and retention. The cultures we create impact staff wellbeing and our supply chain and real estate decisions have major impacts on the bottom line. It is time to come out from under whichever department picked up the management of the workplace (typically it’s finance or HR these days) and take a seat at the leadership table.

Workplace Management responsibilities are significant.

Chief Workplace Officer anyone?