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.”
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.
The biggest critic
But what happens when someone refuses to engage? Roulston recalls an executive on one project who refused to even talk to the architects. “We often start with a simple survey about current working conditions, but he flatly refused to talk about anything to do with the survey.
“So we just went to him and said, what are your ideas? He talked for an hour! He had excellent ideas, some of which have been implemented. He went from someone standoffish to realising he had someone who was prepared to listen to him.”
“In relocations, we come across a lot of people who are losing their office and potentially a car park, all those things that give you a status as having worked up to a certain level. But in fact, for quite a number of our clients, the downside of that office is that they don’t have visibility of their teams. So we point out the advantages: if we do these changes, you will be with your team, and if they are going to activity-based workplaces, then the key thing is flexible working times.
“So if you have two kids, you are not chained to the office – we are implementing new technology to make you more mobile, with less “face time”. I am not saying it always gets them across the line, but it is about working through those concerns and showing them benefits they don’t currently have that would make their working life better.”
It doesn’t always work though. “Whenever you have a big transformational change, you risk losing people. And sometimes that does needs to happen to move forward and maintain the culture,” says Roulston. “But not on our projects!”
Roulston says the best way of evaluating the success of her approach to changing the design and use of offices is to return to the site and see it in action. “You have to go back, we want to know it has worked, and to see people who were against it enjoying it now.”
In one design, where people no longer had their own desks to personalise, Roulston had created a feature wall that looked great on its own, but was also designed for people to personalise. “They could move it around, and they had decorated it with family photos, with little nooks that they had done in their teams, so it was nice to see something we had envisioned taken on and embraced.”
Research suggests that an uplift in productivity following an office redesign or relocation does not last more than a year or two. Roulston agrees that it is almost impossible to measure the productivity impact, but she judges the long-term benefits of her work by a simpler measure: return business.