Early stakeholder engagement in workplace projects: a toolkit approach to inclusive design

Successful workplace change initiatives rarely begin with conversations about the workspace; engaging stakeholders early-on regarding their needs is far more likely to produce positive outcomes.

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James Pinder, Ian Ellison & Sinead O’Toole   



Early stakeholder engagement in workplace projects: a toolkit approach to inclusive design

You have probably heard the now-famous claim, originating from a number of mutually-reinforcing Harvard Business Review articles in the 1990s, that “70% of all organizational change initiatives fail”. The claim has actually been shown to be unfoundedii. However, whilst the rate of failure in projects might have been exaggerated, what we do know is that many projects don’t go as well as they could or should.

Over the years scholars and practitioners have spent a significant amount of time trying to understand why projects fail or under-deliver. Although every project is different, time after time recurring issues have been found to negatively impact on project performance across a range of sectors. In a 2015 paper on why projects failiii, three eminent academics at Cranfield School of Management summarised these issues under four main headings:


  1. Unclear objectives, definition or scope;
  2. Inappropriate/inadequate project teams and leadership;
  3. Poor project planning and controls; and
  4. A lack of stakeholder communication and consultation.

If you’ve been involved in a workplace project – by which we mean a project that involves changing someone’s working environment – you’ll probably recognise some or all of these issues. Perhaps you fell afoul of them, or perhaps you dealt with them successfully. It’s also not difficult to see how these issues can affect one another. For instance, if you don’t have the right project team in place, how likely is it that the project will be scoped, planned, or managed effectively?

Acknowledging these interrelationships, our primary focus in this article is on the first and fourth points listed above. From our experience these factors are where workplace projects tend to go wrong, because everyone’s effort is focused on delivering the project, rather than understanding its purpose and impact.

For reasons we’ll explain below, client organisations can find these issues particularly challenging. The end result is that even if a project is competently managed – with respect to time, cost, and quality – organisations still regularly end up with the wrong workplace solutions for their specific needs and/or a lack of buy-in from their employees.


Beyond imagined user needs

For many organisations, workplace projects have traditionally been more about workspace – about building fabric, architecture, interior design, décor and/or furniture – and less about the people working in them. Think about this the next time you see those glossy promotional images of newly completed workspaces without any people in them. An industry has grown up to help clients deliver new workspaces. However, what is – on the face of it – a positive development has created its own problems.

One such problem is that discussions about new workplaces tend to be dominated by the suppliers and providers of workspace – property professionals, facilities managers, architects and designers – rather than the ultimate users (a term, incidentally, that has different connotations in different contexts) of those spaces. The lack of a user voice in the decision-making process means that the views and needs of actual users often become replaced by those of ‘imagined users’iv.

To put it another way, it is often easier to make assumptions about users’ needs, behaviours, and attitudes, than actually to go to the effort of finding out about them. However, the ‘easier’ approach is also usually far more dangerous.

The lack of a user voice in workplace projects is also symptomatic of the way decisions tend to be made in projects and organisations more generally. It is common for decisions in workplace projects to be decided by a small group of ‘experts’ (including senior leaders who may certainly command authority but do not necessarily have workplace expertise) and then announced to the broader community of stakeholders.

The group are then left defending their decisions from criticism by stakeholders. This ‘decide, announce, defend’ (DAD) approachv often leaves people feeling ‘done to’ and therefore dissatisfied. In this way, the process of changing a workplace can have a significant and negative bearing on how people perceive the workplace product.

Whilst it might not immediately seem so, a DAD approach is also time-consuming and tends to result in inappropriate solutions. These in turn can result in further downstream costs associated with rework and disruption. These costs can often occur long after a project’s snagging list has been signed off, meaning they are absorbed into operational budgets, never reported, or overlooked.


Dangerous desire paths

The very real risk is that a project can successfully deliver the wrong workplace outcomes. Under a DAD approach, consultation can often be about the wrong things and ultimately become viewed as trivialised, insincere, and valueless by users who perceive themselves to be on the receiving end of predetermined solutions and imposed decisions.

If this isn’t starting to leave you with an uneasy feeling already, the lived reality of poorly researched and executed workplace projects is that the users will make things work to suit themselves – because people always find ways to make things work – irrespective of the design intent and idealised protocols.

There’s a great analogy to show how we will always adapt workspaces to suit our needs, irrespective of how they were intended to work. They’re called ‘desire paths’vi (or desire lines) – those well-worn shortcuts across corners of lawns, through flowerbeds and so on, for instance linking car parks more quickly to nearby pavements. They’re there because the people responsible for the area’s design didn’t work hard enough to understand peoples’ behaviours and needs – perhaps committing to decisions too early in the process.

The other unfortunate outcome is that, because engaging with users can be seen as difficult work to do, client organisations regularly outsource workplace change in its entirety, often on a project-by-project basis. The all-too-familiar upshot is that any opportunity for organisational learning gets switched off, as the ‘experts’ come and go, only focussed – and understandably so – on the project within their remit.

Our own research in this area highlights how this process can affect the efficiency and effectiveness of project delivery, the quality of the workplace, and the experience of stakeholders. It is a classic situation, and with the catalogue of pitfalls laid out like this, you’d swear it wouldn’t happen on your watch. And yet it does. The same problems occur over and over again.


An alternative approach

More recently, some more enlightened organisations have recognised the importance of viewing workplace projects as organisational change initiatives – rather than just capital projects – and the benefits of actively involving users in decisions about their workplacevii.

Whilst workspaces should never be viewed as solutions for cultural issues, workplaces are most definitely becoming recognised as catalysts to help address them. Indeed, in his recent book, The Elemental Workplaceviii, Neil Usher encourages us to think in terms of adaptation to rather than adoption of workplace changes, the cultural ripples from which begin long before any tangible physical works take place and persist long after.

With this in mind, an alternative to the DAD approach can be described as ‘engage, deliberate, decide’ (EDD)ix. Under this approach, there is value in the early engagement of people who might otherwise be considered ‘inexpert others’, alongside – and very much complementary to – the work of the recognised workplace ‘experts’.

This is not to advocate that workplace change initiatives become designed by committee. But it does highlight the value of stakeholder engagement so that – echoing the sentiments of professor Peter Jamieson from the University of Melbournex – there is shared expertise around the project table, drawing respectfully on the knowledge of all participants.

In this way user engagement can become fundamental to successful workplaces, not only in terms of informing the final design but also by improving peoples’ readiness for change. Perhaps the most bemusing thing is that the cost of engaging with users like this is trivial compared to the budgeted costs of designing and constructing new workplaces, not to mention the typically unbudgeted (and often hidden, yet significant) costs of the remedial works that attempt to redress problems further down the line.

But perhaps cost isn’t the real issue here: as John Hunt from the London Business School is reported to have said, “the hard things are easy; the soft things are hard; the soft things are the most important”.

...engage with the world as expert citizens, working with others, the citizen experts, on equal terms.

-Awan, Schneider and Till, Spatial Agency (2013, p.32) 1

Unlocking early engagement

Last summer, Sheffield Hallam University’s (SHU) Facilities Directorate (FD) worked with UK-based workplace performance specialists 3edgesxi to improve engagement in workplace and learning environment projects at the University.

SHU have always had a reputation in the higher education sector for having a progressive approach to the provision of learning and office environments. The fact that they were the first higher education institution (HEI) to achieve the Leesman+ certificationxii for their refurbished Bryan Nicholson building is testament to their drive to deliver great workplacesxiii.

But SHU knew as well as any HEI that academia is perhaps the toughest of all cultural nuts to crack when it comes to workplace change. Progressive learning practice does not necessarily translate directly to progressive workplace design.

Under a new Vice Chancellor, SHU’s revised strategic vision clearly emphasised the value of its “place at the heart of the city and the region” to underpin its local, regional and global aspirations to provide “an outstanding environment in which to study, research and workxiv. Consequently, the SHU executive and FD jointly acknowledged the need to revisit their campus masterplan. Whilst this effort would provide a roadmap for their ambitious investment and redevelopment activities, they still needed to ensure that each individual workplace element would be regarded as an enduring success.

Thus, we undertook a collaborative, emergent project that involved taking stock of the learning from past capital projects and then creating a ‘toolkit’ to enable the successful development of new learning environments and workplaces. We knew that the solution had to be scalable for different-sized projects, from the smallest refurbishment to the biggest new build. We also knew it had to respect the diverse, often vocal, stakeholder voices inherent in academic cultures, and adhere to the principles of effective engagement by being non-threatening, meaningful, stimulating, tolerant, inclusive, timely, succinct, and reciprocal.

The taking-stock exercise revealed that despite FD’s strong track record of delivering projects, a range of engagement-related issues persisted that negatively affected the outcomes of those projects. These issues included: procedures and funding cycles limiting the scope for engagement; people feeling ‘done to’; inconsistent engagement practice; engagement about the wrong things; patchy student engagement; and knowledge blind-spots.

It is important to recognise that these issues persisted despite the clear pride and desire by FD to do great work in a politically, culturally, and procedurally challenging context. It is also worth reflecting at this point:  do any of these issues sound familiar?

The very real risk is that a project can successfully deliver the wrong workplace outcomes.


Democratising the RIBA Plan of Works

Our co-created toolkit facilitates early engagement with all stakeholder groups, from key and often senior individuals, to hitherto under-accessed or underrepresented users. The toolkit is based on two principles. The first is an acknowledgement that ongoing (rather than project-centric) dialogue between FD and SHU’s faculties and departments is required to develop a better understanding of their diverse needs. The second was reimagining the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Plan of Work as a democratising tool to help everyone understand the stages of a workplace project.

The RIBA Plan of Workxv (PoW) comprises eight stages from 0 to 7 and is familiar to architects, designers, and other built-environment professionals. It provides, in essence, a standard process for the built environment industry, taking construction projects through a particular sequence of activities, from strategic definition to use.

The RIBA PoW was first developed in 1963 and received its only major revision to date in 2013, on its 50th anniversary. With the advent of Building Information Modelling (BIM) technologies, the revised PoW recognised that involving users at the beginning of project, rather than just before the handover of a building, can lead to better design outcomes.

But there are two challenges here. Firstly, those familiar with the PoW are implicitly aware of its value, but people outside of the construction industry are usually unaware of it. Furthermore, the advent of BIM has seen the likes of facilities managers (responsible for the building in use, and ostensibly representing the user) seeking to engage in projects far earlier in the PoW process, but often without knowing how to do so effectively. We wondered how the PoW could be used to extend this standard process to a broader range of stakeholders?

At SHU we saw how different parts of what needed to be a complementary system were actually working against each other. FD and their supply chain were busy focusing on project delivery using the PoW. Meanwhile, the SHU executive required a series of business and commercial justifications to permit capital projects to proceed. Caught in the middle, SHU faculty leadership teams – with pedagogic but not necessarily workplace expertise – struggled to articulate their needs and aspirations.

In the words of one leadership team member, it was like “knitting fog”. According to another, “things get lost in the machine”. They were essentially caught in process limbo, crying out for someone to help them “to see the art of the possible”.

Needless to say, it is extremely challenging to write either a robust business case or a strategic brief for a workplace project – a key requirement of the PoW ‘Strategic Definition’ Stage 0 – from an uninformed position. And yet creating a brief with the right outcomes is an essential part of setting a new workplace up for success. Recognising the challenges this was creating for SHU – both the leadership teams and FD alike – we looked at what activities needed to take place before Stage 0. These activities involved developing the client’s strategic vision for the potential project, checking the project’s strategic alignment against organisational goals and – in readiness for change leadership activity – devising a stakeholder engagement plan.

Stages in the RIBA Plan of Work (© RIBA 2013)

  1. Strategic definition
  2. Preparation and Brief
  3. Concept Design
  4. Developed Design
  5. Technical Design
  6. Construction
  7. Handover and Close Out
  8. In Use


Enabling genuine consultation

Being able to work this way involved rethinking SHU’s governance approach to ‘Project Boards’, by broadening their remit beyond the design and construction stages so that they encompass the whole process (including the activities that need to take place before Stage 0). And to do this successfully in any organisation – particularly academic communities – requires stakeholder engagement from the outset.

Think about the activities required to develop a new building. Room layouts, services and other building elements are often considered years in advance of the building opening. Yet we usually only ‘consult’ users six months to a year before they move in. Consulting at this point means that it is usually too late for users to influence anything that would make a genuine difference to their working lives, so we end up discussing things like filing cabinet layouts, desk partition heights and the colour of the buttons on sofa cushions (all of these are genuine examples and by no means unique to one organisation).

If you’ve been involved in situations like this, you will no doubt recognize the uncomfortable feeling as you cautiously seek to avoid emotive topics and conflicting agendas. We’re back in the realms of the DAD approach again, entrenched in negotiations about specific workspace elements, which are really symptoms of broader systemic issues.

Somewhat counterintuitively, when it comes to early engagement, perhaps the least useful thing to do is to begin with discussions about physical spaces. From our experience, the earlier that spatial solutions are discussed in workplace projects, the more likely it is that a project will become derailed by peoples’ wants and political agendas. Instead, the focus should be on exploring peoples’ future aspirations, goals, activities, and needs. These are the organisational insights you need to elicit. To hold true to this path often requires very skilful facilitation.

With this in mind, the toolkit takes the project board team through the early engagement activities and RIBA stages 0 and 1. Only at Stage 1, with the PoW Initial Project Brief, do spatial design considerations come to the fore.

A range of structured engagement activities enables the Project Board to: identify, understand and engage meaningfully with diverse stakeholder groups; consider the findings; and then use them to proactively inform the design. Different groups require different information gathering techniques, and innovative web- or app-based research tools (including, for example, wiki-surveys and new online debating platforms) push the traditional boundaries of quantitative and qualitative data capture.

The cost of engaging with users like this is trivial compared to the budgeted costs of designing and constructing new workplaces.

Embedded learning

Initial use of the toolkit has had positive results, eliciting (for example) real enthusiasm from faculty leadership teams. As outcome-focused questions are asked, leaders are in turn challenging themselves and each other to think differently. Such early engagement also provides an ‘early warning system’ – a way to identify issues or concerns early enough to be able to do something about them.

Our own learning through this collaboration has been invaluable. Starting from the premise that successful workplace change initiatives rarely – in our experience – begin with conversations about workspace, we see structured, facilitated early engagement as a means to a better end for all involved. Consequently, we encourage other HEIs (and indeed all organisations) to consider the value of early engagement and this toolkit-enabled approach to prime workplace projects for sustained success from the outset.


The toolkit itself continues to evolve. The tools improve as we learn through using them. This of course means that in-house teams like FD can develop their own workplace competences and share learning from project to project. For SHU and their supply chain partners, as their campus masterplan takes them well into the next decade and beyond, this experience should prove invaluable.



i           Awan, N., Schneider, T., & Till, J. (2013). Spatial agency: other ways of doing architecture. Routledge.

ii           Hughes, M. (2011). Do 70 percent of all organizational change initiatives really fail? Journal of Change Management, 11(4), 451-464.

iii          Algar, J., Carver S. & Johnson B. (2014). Why Projects Fail. Available at: https://www.pmtoday.co.uk/media/1423/whyprojectsfail0314-14-17.pdf (accessed 19 March 2018).

iv          Ivory, C., & Alderman, N. (2009). The imagined user in projects: Articulating competing discourses of space a and knowledge work. ephemera, 131.

v          Walker, P. (2009). Dinosaur DAD and enlightened EDD – engaging people earlier is better. The Environmentalist, 71, 12-13.

vi          Kohlstedt, K. (2016). Least Resistance: How Desire Paths Can Lead to Better Design. Available at

https://99percentinvisible.org/article/least-resistance-desire-paths-can-lead-better-design/ (accessed 19 March 2018).

vii         See for example https://www.rca.ac.uk/research-innovation/helen-hamlyn-centre/research-projects/2017-projects/workplace-wellbeing.

viii        Usher, N. (2018). The Elemental Workplace. LID Publishing.

ix          Walker, P. (2009). Dinosaur DAD and enlightened EDD—engaging people earlier is better. The Environmentalist, 71, 12-13.

x          Jamieson, P. (2003). Designing more effective on-campus teaching and learning spaces: A role for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 8(1-2), 119-133.

xi          https://www.3edges.co.uk.

xii         http://www.leesmanindex.com/leesman-plus/ (accessed 19 March 2018).

xiii        https://www.thestar.co.uk/news/education/workplace-award-for-sheffield-hallam-after-buildinosteg-revamp-1-8259447 (accessed 19 March 2018).

xiv        Sheffield Hallam University (2017) Transforming Lives. Available at: https://www.shu.ac.uk/~/media/home/campaigns/files/transforming-lives.pdf (accessed 19 March 2018).

xv         https://www.ribaplanofwork.com/Default.aspx (accessed 19 March 2018).


James Pinder, Director, 3edges

James is an applied researcher with a longstanding interest in workplace, and the impact it has on people and organisations. Following a degree in building surveying, his doctorate explored the relationship between workplace design, perceptions and cost. He is an experienced evaluator, adept at providing organisations with new insights and communicating those insights in engaging and understandable ways. James has undertaken numerous research and consultancy projects on behalf of a wide range of clients and funding bodies over the last 15 years and has published widely, in both academic and practitioner focused publications.

w          https://www.3edges.co.uk

e          [email protected]

l           linkedin.com/in/pinderjames


Ian Ellison, Director, 3edges

With 19 years’ experience spanning workplace and facilities management practice and education, Ian has developed a reputation as an engaging facilitator and provocative speaker. He is passionate about the power of workplace to enable better business outcomes, and about helping organisations make better decisions by thinking differently about their workplaces. Ian is co-founder and host of the Workplace Matters podcast and was also a key contributor to the Stoddart Review. Ian writes and presents on a range of workplace-related topics exploring the human and cultural elements of organisational and workplace change.

w          https://www.3edges.co.uk

e          [email protected]

l           https://www.linkedin.com/in/ian-ellison


Sinead O’Toole, Future Spaces Manager, Sheffield Hallam University

Sinead spent 20 years in financial services, primarily in London, with a career that has included roles in banking operations, move management, project and change management. Having made the leap ‘up north’, Sinead joined Sheffield Hallam University in 2011 as part of the Estates team in the Facilities Directorate, quickly becoming a central figure in the university’s work on learning spaces. Having completed her MBA in FM in 2016, including a dissertation exploring academic workspace, Sinead’s motivation and passion has always been around changing work and learning places for the better, with a particular focus on people and engagement.

w          www.shu.ac.uk

e          [email protected]

l           https://www.linkedin.com/in/sinead-o-toole-412955137 


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