This case study was originally published by Tech Research Asia in 2014 and written independently of any sponsorships or funding.
This Tech Research Asia end user case study analyses the results of the adoption of a flexible workplace strategy called BlueWork, by American Express in Singapore, Taiwan, China and Australia. American Express is one of a number of organisations in the Asia Pacific region that are adopting work styles like activity based working (ABW) to drive enhanced employee engagement and growth. This case study delivers a comprehensive analysis of how BlueWork is being viewed by those responsible for the work style adoption and technology implementation in terms of business outcomes. It includes an overview of the business drivers for BlueWork, details on the project implementation, an analysis of the results of adopting flexible working and next steps for American Express.
The contribution BlueWork made to the company’s talent management efforts is perceived to be very high with interaction and collaboration between individuals, teams and business units rising above expectations.
Unified Communications and ubiquitous WiFi are considered the top two most critical technologies to have in place to support American Express’s ABW environment.
Evaluate whether a progressive flexible working strategy like ABW would benefit your organisation. There is a growing body of evidence that points to a broad array of benefits from ABW that IT and business leaders cannot ignore. Consider engaging a third party to help assess your workplace strategy and help set a new vision.
Ignore technology and change management at your own peril with any ABW project. Technology is the pivotal force in enabling an anywhere, anytime work style and IT failures can severely impact project success.
Name: American Express
Size: 63,500 employees worldwide
Industry: Financial Services
Countries: Singapore, China, Taiwan, and Australia
Project snapshot: Adoption of a flexible working strategy (including Activity Based Working) in Singapore, Taiwan, Shanghai and Australia
Results: ABW contributed highly to growth, cost management, productivity and innovation. The BlueWork strategy contributed most to talent management with company representatives rating it 9 out of 10.
Future: American Express is committed to its BlueWork journey and is now encouraging greater adoption of ABW in its offices around the Asia Pacific region.
The When, Who And What
American Express is one of the world’s most recognizable brands, offering financial and travel services in over 130 countries around the globe. In 2005 American Express established a new workplace strategy for its workforce of more than 63,000 employees. Called BlueWork, it has evolved from a real estate strategy to embrace a holistic approach that includes human resources and IT. All of the organisation’s new offices around the globe are now designed according to BlueWork’s flexible working principles – including its most recent offices in Singapore, Taiwan and Shanghai in the Asia Pacific region. All offices support activity based working (ABW), telework, traditional desk work and mobile working.
Prior to BlueWork, American Express’s workplace strategies varied depending on location and sometimes by the floor of the same office building. BlueWork aimed to bring all offices under one global strategy, improve its utilisation of real estate assets, and at the same time boost the company’s reputation as an employer of choice; American Express wanted to tap into a broader talent pool such as mothers returning to work or those seeking part time roles. To achieve this, the real estate team sought the support of the chief financial officer (CFO) who gave support to change the company’s workplace standards globally, thus setting in motion a nine-year workplace strategy journey.
Prior to each new office project American Express does a survey to understand how employees are working and also how they are utilising spaces. This helps inform the office design, IT roadmap and change management program, which is generated in collaboration with third party providers. The country executive team in each location is also engaged early in order to obtain support for the planned changes to real estate, HR policies, culture and IT.
Written and verbal communication is given to employees prior to moving into any new offices. The BlueWork team, for instance, walks employees through all the spaces and how they could be used on a daily basis. This helps overcome apprehension among staff about when and who can use spaces. In other words, it assists in building trust and helping the company overcome the “bums on seats” management approach.
American Express has categorised the four kinds of work styles it supports in each office into: home; roam; club; and hub. Employees are typically grouped into one of these four work styles and operate on a daily basis according to the guidelines set up for each.
Home: This group of employees teleworks as the name suggests. Home employees are provided with support for setting up the technology in their home office environment, including web cameras for video conferencing. Home employees work the vast majority of their time remotely, but occasionally attend the main office in their location. In order to mitigate the feelings of isolation and exclusion that some teleworkers report, American Express has set up communities (called BlueEN) that connect and promote interaction between Home employees and other staff. The percentage of Home employees in any given location varies: in Singapore it is less than 5% of the workforce but in Australia it is up to 30%.
Roam: American Express has several employees that work on a daily basis from locations other than the company’s own offices (but not from home) such as clients’ premises. Any employee who spends most of their time away from the American Express office – in a form of mobile work (but possibly also at a fixed desk) – is a Roamer. This group represents the smallest percentage of the American Express workforce.
Hub: Employees in this group work in a traditional office environment in that they have a dedicated desk and are expected to come to work at that desk each day in standard office hours. In the early stages of BlueWork, hub workers were back office or task workers but now they can be from any role.
Club: This group operates under an ABW model where there are no allocated desks, but instead a variety of work spaces are offered – employees choose where they sit and which spaces they use depending on the task at hand or desired environment. American Express has an average ratio of four staff to every three desks in Club environments. Each employee gets a locker and works from a “neighbourhood” where their team is typically located in the office. Neighbourhoods were an important step to make sure employees don’t feel alienated from their own teams, especially when they are frequently working with other groups or sitting next to new people daily. Initially the Club work style was for sales people or roles deemed to be flexible workers. But it is now being built into all role types – anybody can become a club worker and American Express encourages this.
In the initial stages of the BlueWork strategy, the team responsible for overseeing its rollout had to overcome perceptions that flexible working “didn’t work in Asian markets”. While Hub working is still more prominent than the Home or Roam work styles, the company’s Asia Pacific offices are embracing ABW enthusiastically. Singapore, for example, was one of the front runners in adopting Club working and in the new Taiwan and Shanghai offices everyone is a Club worker. In most locations the company is witnessing a strong demand from employees to be a Club worker.
In general, BlueWork offices provide employees with a variety of contemporary and newly designed spaces such as phone booths, desk spaces, small huddle rooms (for one-to-one meetings), soft seating areas, hard wall areas, and standard meeting rooms. Most spaces are multi-use. One of the big design features in Singapore, for example, is a kitchen and two adjacent training rooms are able to be opened up to create one large town hall area. The company has a mix of spaces that employees can reserve via a global meeting room booking system and open areas.
On the technology side of the Bluework strategy, American Express is supported globally by partners like AT&T. In addition to ubiquitous WiFi, the Microsoft suite of productivity tools including SharePoint, Lync and Outlook is also playing a key role, especially in Club environments. While greater levels of in-office mobility have proven successful in driving increased collaboration and productivity for American Express, it did reveal an unexpected challenge – having enough charging stations for the influx of mobile devices. The company now designs all offices to cater for this mobile reality.
The results in chart 1 shows the level of contribution American Express’s BlueWork flexible working strategy makes to a common set of business goals. American Express’s Director JAPA, Global Real Estate & Workplace Enablement, Anne Barrett was asked to provide a rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 10 is an outstanding contribution, and 1 is a very low contribution).
Each business goal is listed below along with the score and reasoning where provided by American Express.
Growth – 8. BlueWork’s flexible work spaces have enabled the company to grow within its existing real estate footprint and cater to fluctuations in head count. This has translated directly onto the P&L of each country.
Cost management – 8. Through reducing its real estate footprint – e.g. in Singapore the company went from three offices down to two when adopting BlueWork – the organisation is able to channel more money back into the core business that would have gone into real estate.
Risk Management – 5. BlueWork is perceived to have only provided an average contribution to risk management.
Talent Management – 9. American Express has seen an increase in retention with 87% of respondents to an internal survey stating they are satisfied with the way the internal workplace strategy is heading. This is the top outcome for American Express.
Client Engagement – 5. While given an average rating, the company believes happier employees perform better and engage better. Most staff are now also happy to bring clients into the office.
CSR – 7. Pursuing Bluework has meant American Express has developed mature principles its office design, energy usage, and supply chain for things like furniture (smart sourcing).
Productivity – 8. This result was perceived to be closely tied to talent management. A high rating was given because of collaboration across individuals, teams, and business units. Club spaces in particular were noted as contributing strongly to collaboration. This wasn’t something that American Express really foresaw – it was though a welcome by-product.
Innovation – 8. The company believes higher creativity coming out of teams combined with cross-departmental collaboration is driving new ideas generation.
The Next Steps for American Express
American Express is now nine years into its BlueWork journey and has steadily been improving on its strategy with each new office it opens – it has adopted a form of “Kaizen”, or ongoing improvement. This involves ongoing investigation into what works and doesn’t. The company intends to continue promoting BlueWork and is encouraging greater adoption of ABW among its workforce in future.
For Technology and Service Buyers looking to adopt a flexible working strategy:
Take stock and assess your current culture and performance trajectory: Conduct a utilisation study and undertake stakeholder interviews or surveys including front line employees. Ensure this is done independently to ensure data captured is valid and provides reliable insights. Consider employing a third party to help with this step, but make sure skills and knowledge transfer is built into any agreements so the organisation can continue to assess its workplace needs going forward without relying on 3rd parties heavily.
Define your vision for your ideal environment and culture through multi-party collaboration: Input from both front-line workers and the executive branch will help ensure the vision is representative. Tour current high performance workplaces to understand what is possible. Seek out the expertise of vendors and partners that have adopted themselves and have multiple reference customers.
Explore a pilot program: You don’t need a huge investment to trial a high performance workplace and many flexible work styles can be trialled using existing offices and technology. However, look at existing research on flexible working and the outcomes being achieved to safeguard against expectations that are inflated or set too low.
Align all stakeholders – internal and external – to the vision and set out your project responsibilities and timeline. Consider the essentials such as security, cost, and compliance and ensure that these are not compromised. Ensure the project management does not result in siloed components pursuing their targets independently of the broader vision. The best results are always those that bring together the four elements.
Plan for how you will reinvent again to engage customers and employees. Work styles and spaces of today will change again – will you have the capacity and agility to stay ahead?