Saturday, January 31, 2009

Redesigning office space

What are the tricks to using office space effectively? I recently met with the HR Director of a global beverage company. I walked into the drab office building and immediately sensed an oppressive hush. There was a fully stocked bar in the reception which was all locked up. Grey-suited workers tip-toed by muttering quietly to one another. I couldn't tell you why, but I was immediately certain that nobody working there was enjoying themselves.

The HR Director was delightful. We spoke about cost-cutting, about the aggressive performance management they were in the middle of. Most of all we spoke about the depressing, low morale culture of the office. She asked me what could they do to change the look and feel of the office. It got me thinking more broadly about how to use office space. Here are seven issues that I think are important:

1. visual branding: what is on your walls can be used to reinforce the culture. Do you have corporate announcements that sit there curling at the edges? Do you have photos of community office activities? eople move in the direction of their attention. What do you want your workers to be paying attention to? Who is responsible for keeping it fresh and relevant?

2. unintentional signaling: who gets the corner offices? who gets offices at all? where does the most important person sit? where are the meeting rooms? who has to share with who? many many, real estate is everything . it depends on whether signaling strong hierarchy is a 'good thing'. Normally the more open plan the better (for the company, individuals would all like a room of one's own which leads us to...)

3. unplanned encounters: to what extent do you want people to be connecting with one another informally over the course of the day? Normally much more than they are now. This is how people build a sense of attachment, belonging and share ideas. People behave just like animals. They take the most selfish direct route for their needs: food, water, bathroom, mail. Companies who try to cater to what their employees say the want unintentionally create environments where no-one is forced into physical proximity with other people. There are no 'water-cooler' moments. The poor design of our kitchen is one example - it should be the place in the office where you can bump into anyone and chat (people of all levels) but instead people just scurry in and out. Having more places to get tea and coffee actually reduces the social connectedness of the office. Most organizations don't get this.

4. changing it up: we quickly adapt to our environments. much faster than we predict we will. companies spend time putting up notice boards, photo displays etc but if nothing changes, we no longer notice them. It can be important to make continual small changes to the office environment e.g. no-one is in charge of the notice boards where I work and they are neglected. they are a missed opportunity to reinforce the culture and signal what's important and tell people what they should be thinking about
5. dirty laundry: what space is 'private' for employees only and what is 'public' that clients & guests should be able to see. If you want a place for employees to eat / bond / joke with one another, don't put it by the main client reception area.

6. seating mix: who needs to collaborate for the organization to be successful. What type of colleague should sitting within the vicinity (same function as you, same level)? This may be driven by the organizational structure: functional vs industry vs geographic vs customer segment. One argument is that if you organize by function (e.g. junior marketing people report to head of marketing not to their brand product) then should all the marketing people sit together? well it depends. If you sit them together you reduce the transaction costs of them communicating. But they will likely not mix and speak to people from other departments. How important is it for cross-department collaboration?

7. lines of sight: the atmosphere of a place of work changes significantly depending on how many people you can see from where you sit. There are huge differences between open plan and cubicles where you can't see (yet can still hear) one another. I know of HR departments who were given high cubicle walls for privacy yet they were not soundproof so they can't have the confidential conversations they need to do their job. Yet they are now isolated from their colleagues. In local communities / neighborhoods you can predict the amount of crime by the number of lines of sight that people have when walking around. They didn't realise this when building in the 1960s but now it is a key part of planning 'walkable urban' downtown areas.
PS my blog artwork was designed by my sister


brian said...

That was really interesting ideas you got there Alan. Thank you for sharing those 7 issues that I agree is very important. Regards and I wish you all the best.

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craig said...

totally agree on you! Thanks for sharing.

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Amanda Parkinson said...

A favorable office surroundings is critical to sustaining a pleased and propelled manpower. Unable to overhaul an exhausted place can, in reality, take off the conflicting direction and damage productiveness. Assuming measures to freshen up your situation can lead to bigger incentive, expanded work gratification and more beneficial arrangement and is, in the end, valuable in imposing a confident urbanity at your corporation.

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Mike Jonhson said...

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