How to get employees on board with a workplace redesign

As a baby boomer, I entered the workplace years ago as a newly minted college graduate with an eye on the corner office. It didn’t matter so much what the actual job was, or how hard you had to work – the stately office itself was the measure of success. Back then, corporations didn’t worry as much about efficiency. Real estate wasn’t a cost to contain. In fact, the more people, departments, and property that a company had were all signs of its accomplishments.

Fast forward through the advent of voicemail, email, text, tweets, life work balance, recruiting and, most importantly, globalization, one can see that business has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, many organizations are, just now, coming to the realization that its own workplace design must change in order to keep up.

Driving this organizational change are four main factors:

  • The need to innovate through improved collaboration – corporate silos are coming down and the pace of development has picked up.
  • The desire to attract and retain employees – especially in the technical fields where there are just not enough graduates to replace the retiring boomers while also staffing for growth.
  • The need to improve use of real estate assets – after employees, facilities can be the next biggest cost. Getting more out of the existing space improves margins.
  • The use of mobile technology – in many cases, employees can work anytime/anywhere, both in and outside the office, so the environment needs to support this practice.

But while an organization knows its workplace needs to change, getting everyone onboard with that change is, quite often, the major stumbling block. In our experience, the reasons relate to a few core issues:

  • What’s in it for me? – most employees get comfortable in their current arrangement. They have a routine; they know what to expect. Change is an unknown and there is an inherent fear of the unknown.
  • Perception of loss of control, empowerment, and/or value – Employees initially view an open office environment as less “custom” to their individual situation. Everyone is now the same. This issue is compounded when the change is from a private office to a workstation. To the affected individual it feels like their space has been taken and they have been demoted.
  • Misinformation or lack of communication – Without providing timely, accurate information about the new workspace, the void will be filled by rumors, guesses, and assumptions. The longer this continues, the harder it is for the organization to drive the message. It wastes time, energy, and resources to continually quash off-the-wall ideas.
  • Mismatched organizational values and/or culture – Just because an office environment is appropriate for one company, doesn’t mean it is good for another. The workspace must reflect the company brand, culture, and function. If the physical workplace change is not consistent with the company’s current culture or the direction that it is heading, there is minimal chance of ultimate success.

So how does an organization address these concerns and improve the likelihood of overall project success? First, assume that there will always be some resistance. In fact, resistance is not always bad because it does provide the starting point for productive dialogue and debate. With that in mind:

  • Over communicate– Make sure to address the “what’s in it for me,” whether it be technology improvements, exterior views, better ergonomics, personalized accessories, improved lighting and/or more conference rooms. Discuss new features along with what employees must give up to provide a balanced perspective. Show renderings of the space, let employees test new products, and provide accurate timelines and progress reports along the way. Make the quantitative case (i.e. occupancy cost savings that can be put into R&D to help the company grow) and the qualitative case (i.e. improved collaboration and more creativity).
  • Engage all levels of the organization – Every firm has key individuals that are key to its success. The more involved these employees are in the decision making process, the more likely they will support the change. Solicit those opinions, gather ideas, and accept honest feedback before, during, and after the change. Make sure that the feedback is not just a “token” by being willing to accept, and incorporate, some of the feedback into the plan.  Enlist “champions” to help communicate and sell the plan internally.
  • Lead by example – Ensure that the new space reflects the organization’s stated values, mission statement, and brand. Management must lead the initiative. If an open office concept is desired for employees, implementation will be difficult if managers remain enclosed in private offices along the windows. Likewise, if collaboration is a goal, company leaders need to demonstrate that having a meeting in the new café, for example, is encouraged.
  • Continue to evaluate – Everything may not be perfect on day one. Some product may need to be altered in order to accommodate a unique request. A collaboration area may need to be reoriented. Be flexible, train employees on how to use their new products and workspace, and continually evaluate.

At the end of the day, changing the workspace is a process. It takes detailed upfront planning and diligent execution all along the way. Success is achieved when the change is the new normal.

ISCG’s showroom and office

That brings me back to the corner office I aspired to earn out of college. Today, I do have an office, but instead of wrap-around exterior windows, mahogany paneling, and an imposing entry, it is in the least desirable back corner of our showroom with a limited exterior view and a full ceiling-to-floor clear glass front. It may not be what I envisioned decades ago, but it fits our brand, culture, and function wonderfully. It is my new normal.

Design, PeopleBob Martin