How effective change management can help you survive the dreaded office redesign

It took eight months to conduct the pre-design consultation in a recent office fitout project undertaken by architecture firm Rothelowman, says Tessa Roulston, the lead interior designer for commercial clients. “It was eight months before we put pen to paper,” Roulston tells LeadingCompany.

“We set up small teams across the company, from management to administration, talking them through the proposed changes and really involving them in the whole process.

“The purpose is to give them the message about the big changes, but it is also the opportunity for the concerns and resistance to that change to come out through those meetings, and to come out in time to inform the changes.”

In other words, what people say about the proposed changes influences the design.

Admittedly, eight months is a long time for a consultation, even in Roulston’s book. But time is the key to successful change management, including changes to an office design.

“You need to have the time to plan the process with key milestones and goals, and to celebrate these steps through the process. I am really passionate about this: if you have a good process, it eliminates the uncertainty, opens communications and minimises the chaos.”

Roulston is fascinated by the impact of change management on the success of an office redesign, especially as many companies move to activity-based workplaces (ABW), in which staff are less likely to have their own desk and more likely to shift around the office according to the task they are working on.

“We are going through quite a big shift from 15 years ago – when offices moved to open-plan – and now we are moving to activity based working,” she says. “There are a lot of benefits to employers because of the reduction in office floor space, but staff worry if they lose their desk that they will lose their job, their position, their big desk by the window.

“There are specialists in change management from an HR perspective, but what we offer is to take in all the information and create a design or plan from analysing the business and understanding the direction it is heading.”

About-face

Many leaders believe people are resistant to change per se. But, in fact, they are resistant to change for the worse. We are all very sensitive to the implications of change, and quick to assess whether or not a change is in our best interests.

But Roulston says what each of us believes to be in our best interests is harder to determine. Some people might be outraged at a reduction in office space, or an expectation that they sit among the office plebs. It is an insult to their authority, experience and ambition.

For others, the outrage may be moving from a view of the evolving day – the transit of sun, cloud, wind and rain – that is their essential to their sense of meaning and connection to the world; it is not about status, but about temperament or creativity.

Although it is important for leaders to participate in the consultations, Roulston says she and her team become the middle men between the client’s management and its employees. Employees don’t always say what they really think in front of the boss.

A big advantage is that architects are visual communicators, and can shift the debate from a war of words into a constructive visualisation of the changes. “If it is something like workstation change, we have actually set up some of those workstations so people can get used to it, and work through the transition over a period of time. That allows them to say, you know, it would be even better if we added this, or, if we could push those desks together, then we could achieve that.”

Roulston says that employees, who do the work, often have the best ideas about how offices should be redesigned.

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