AVOIDING THE NEW OFFICE BLUES

Old Office Look

The prime factor in retaining employees at any level is a person's happiness with the job and the organization.

That seems pretty obvious. And on the face of it, new premises can only be a positive thing, given that the two most powerful words in the sales vocabulary are "new" and "improved". Presumably a new facility, or the retrofit of an existing space provides both qualities in spades.

As a species we may well be intrigued by new things but we also have an overriding aversion to change. Statistically, the fear of loss is twice as strong as the potential up-side to gain. In other words, we must perceive twice as much advantage before risk becomes acceptable. Another fundamental human consideration is control. It is one of our most important psychological needs. We are also nesting creatures. The workspace, regardless of size or amenities, is "our" space. A premises move or renovation destroys that anchor. For most, being moved, effectively against our will, is a very significant change that impacts both productivity and morale. Most will soldier on of course, but a few people, generally some of the best, feel slighted by the process.

For the people directly involved in the project, change is exciting, possibly even transformative. They see the floor plan evolve, help evaluate furniture options and choose finishes; decision-makers who are aware of the myriad competing factors that go into creating an efficient environment. However, for those outside the project team, by definition the majority, the perspective is generally concern. One of the most fundamental realities of human existence is being dictated to them, without input or recourse. The resulting dissatisfaction, flux at best, resentfulness at worst, has a considerable impact on productivity.

Some downplay the impact of change on the rank and file, or the need to involve them in an effective change-management strategy. Imagine, as a senior manager, you get a memo one morning from a real estate broker saying that in few months the firm will be moving to new premises but sadly you will have no input with regard to space allocation or furniture. You might be in a cubical, you might be in a pod, you will almost certainly have less space than you currently enjoy. Would you be stressed?

It is a given that everyone cannot be involved is every decision. That would be a recipe for disaster. But there are many key milestones along the way that can be opened up to the broader constituency for input. Simply keeping staff in the loop throughout the planning process creates de facto buy-in, making the eventual transition to "new" considerably less stressful.


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WIDE OPEN SPACES - THEY'RE ALL THE RAGE

Open Office Space

Open office plans are "trending" these days but in situations where the surroundings have a significant correlation to productivity, is the trend prudent?

Turns out, answering that question can be complicated and, to a certain extent, enterprise and even departmentally specific.

Years ago a typical space allocation per office worker was in the 250 sq/ft range. In recent years that has dropped precipitously to about 150 sq/ft.. Part of that space reduction was achieved through better furniture design but part was almost certainly economically driven. But there are limits. An open office plan, one where workers are accommodated in benching clusters rather than cubicles, allows that allocation to be reduced even further. By removing cubical partitions, a percentage of individual space can be converted into shared space, the immediate effect being higher density.

Proponents (and system furniture manufacturers) rush to point out that removing the physical barriers allows staff to more freely collaborate, building teamwork and fostering creativity. In many cases that is true. The late Steve Jobs once famously demanded that Apple's headquarters in Cupertino CA., at the time two multi-story buildings linked with an atrium, be designed with only one washroom, located in the atrium, to promote interdepartmental mingling. Sadly the California build code was less innovative and he had to settle for a central cafeteria.

Uniting people across departmental lines has demonstrably positive effects. When people get to know their colleagues, gleaning even a basic understanding of adjacent roles and pressures, the theoretical barriers between departments tends to dissolve. The operating units become more cohesive, rather than the sum of their parts.

In the follow-up to "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", "The 8th Habit", influential management thinker the late Stephen Covey explores a survey of 23,000 employees drawn from a number of companies and industries. Their responses to fundamental organizational questions represent a clarion call. Expressed as percentages, the results present a stark contrast to conventional wisdom. Expressed in an everyday metaphor they seem almost comical.

"If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they play and know exactly what they are supposed to do. And all but 2 players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.”

Removing barriers, real and perceived, promotes teamwork. For many, open office configurations physically articulate that goal by providing an environment that encourages, even forces collaboration. But by no means are they a panacea. Many job functions, HR and finance for example, often require tightly controlled access. Similarly, complex or mission-critical activities seldom benefit from extraneous input or inadvertent distractions. Indeed the impact of "distraction" seems to undermine the advantages of a collaborative environment. A recent study published by the University of California, Irvine, suggests that it can take several minutes to get back into a task after interruption, depending on the nature of the interruption. Lack of interruption is the primary reason why early morning and late evening work time is so productive.

It is a question of balance. One needs to weigh the various options carefully to make the right choices. When it comes to people, there are few if any "one size fits all" approaches.


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A CHAIR COSTS HOW MUCH?!?

Grumpy Manager

You've probably seen "task" chairs at STAPLES or COSTCO, even IKEA, for a couple hundred dollars, and the same is true for desks and filing cabinets. Why then would anyone pay three to five times that and more to get them from a commercial supplier? The answer is quite simple; durability.

Few give much thought to the forces exerted on a task chair (industry jargon for a typical office chair) during daily use. For example, the chair is in use for at least used at least 8 hours and the components components (casters, base, spindle, seat, back, arms, etc) experience loads and stresses that would simply reduce their lesser retail cousins to scrap. On average, a 68 KG (150 lbs) person compresses and releases the assembly upwards of 40 times a day, not to mention the surface abrasion of friction. Most times the actions are gracefully executed but sometimes, and for some people often, the action of sitting down is considerably less delicate.

Your staff uses the furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E in the vernacular) often, everyday. Some things see only modest duty while others, desk drawers for example, are constantly opened and closed. Over the course of a year there are literally tens of thousands of interactions.

Even simple touch takes its toll. A plastic laminate (P-Lam) counter in the Jungle Room at Elvis's Graceland Mansion has to be replaced frequently, simply because millions of visitors run their fingers over the surface. P-Lam is one of the most resilient surface finishes available but even that is no match for the rigors of almost constant contact. Lack of ownership also exacts a toll. Not actual ownership, of course, but rather the investment that comes from taking care of one's immediate surroundings, the "nest", so to speak. Spaces dedicated to transient or floating staff tend to require a higher maintenance precisely because pride of ownership is often not present.

The respective product warranties express the difference most conclusively. Commercial sources typically offer a 7 to 12 year warrantee, depending on manufacturer and line. They can do so because the constituent materials are better, the design is better and the assembly is better. By comparison, SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) equipment manufacturers might offer 3 to 6 months.


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DOES RECEPTION FIGHT WITH YOUR BRAND?

Uninspired Reception Seating

Virtually everyone who comes to your office spends some time in the reception area. Less is better, of course, but regardless of how long, the surroundings speak volumes, and not always consciously.

Even a brief wait can be excruciating for some. Pressing matters consume the thought process and time always seems in short supply. For others, a little reflective time is a welcomed respite as they take a moment collecting thoughts or assemble their cadre arriving from different locations. An expressive reception area must reasonably accommodate both perspectives with an intuitive layout and furnishings.

Overall the space should be inviting and comfortable rather than stark or intimidating. Cheek-by-joule seating under the withering stare of the receptionist(s) does little to communicate positive organizational values, unless the business is prison operation or proctoring exams. The stay in reception, regardless of brevity, presents a unique opportunity to communicate viscerally; a rare moment when little else competes for attention.

Good design is vital. In large spaces seating should be arranged in clusters, close enough that two groupings can be perceptually, if not physically linked but far enough apart that someone sitting in one is not impinging on others. Individual seating is more versatile than sofas and few waiting are close enough to the people they are with to share personal space.

Light is an elemental consideration. Few things have as much impact on perception as light. Natural light can be a plus but it is not necessity. For most, reception space is contiguous to the elevator bank and often far from any windows. Either way, the reception area should be relatively bright but the lighting quality should never be harsh. A high light level adds energy but one should light the space and not the people waiting. Few want to feel like they are on-stage. The eye naturally gravitates to the brightest elements in our field of vision, making these the centers of interest. Having several features allows you to control focus and those elements can easily become the touchstones of brand. Strength, innovation, dedication and integrity are just some of the attributes that can be viscerally communicated, all without saying a word.

Screens too are very magnetic. Single or multiple LCD panels offer direct and indirect messaging options. Screens can be used for brand awareness, depth of selection promotion, vanity messaging, even artistic expression in service of market position. Delivery can be text through full motion graphics, even video. Audio is best left to other settings. Programming options are many and varied; in-house software packages to externally managed data. Content can be simple or sophisticated and, done well, a very well received reception component.

Once considered a simple anteroom for triaging guests, the modern reception area has quietly evolved into a communications oasis that speaks to visitors in a variety of ways. Given the intense battle for attention that confronts us from virtually event surface, the advantage of a well-designed waiting area is not something to be taken lightly.


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