The Ways We Work: VI



I’ve been standing on my soapbox, preaching the virtues of aligning the workplace with the goals and objectives of each organization as well as with their workers’ activities. Some of you, I suspect, disagree with that idea. But if we were to engage in a debate, we might be discussing how this shift actually plays out in reality, and not the shift itself. Recently I came across an article singing the praises of ‘breakthrough’ office-less offices (USA TODAY, June 6th) and another one decrying the soullessness and dysfunction of open-plan (The NEW YORK TIMES, May 19)

Alternate realities: loving or loathing an open-plan office

Why such polar opinions to, and experiences of, the workplace? Why is this so hard to get it right? And why, if we generally agree that my thesis is directionally correct, aren’t we moving there more quickly and easily?

Well, there’s the obvious answer. Change, no matter how desirable, is intimidating and seemingly risky. After all, we’re exchanging the known for the unknown. I’ve been known to glibly summarize the steps involved in “change management” which refers to defining and communicating the reasons the status quo is no longer acceptable; paint a compelling picture of the possible future; slay the monsters on the path from “current state” to “future state” so that people are less afraid to make the move. Each of these steps requires serious decision-making, conscious commitments of resources, and a deep and broad willingness to drive both cultural and structural change. Sayin’ it, don’t make it so.

I think we get stymied by a host of things, including what the authors of the NetWork paper called “legacy patterns”, lack of capabilities or resources, and structural challenges. Behavioral norms, for example, will likely need to change in the future: Workers may need to do their work differently. The organization may be shifting from an entitlement mentality to a resource mentality. But it’s unclear who owns both the figuring it out, in other words what we want people to stop doing, start doing or keep doing as well as how to coach them through the changes. This lack of clear ownership for cross-boundary changes is probably the biggest and most consistent obstacle I see. Often, this missing linkage is hidden in a request for “change management” services.

The desire to avoid risk and upheaval is also visible when organizations are hoping for easy solutions. They want to know “who’s-doing-cool-stuff-that’s-proven-to-work-so-we-can-just-copy-them”.

New ways of working bring another topic into the spotlight–performance management systems (or the lack thereof), in other words how we measure productivity. I assume those who ask this question are hoping for proven cause-and-effect relationships between some aspect of the workplace, like the old debate over panel heights, and performance.

But if the organization does not have a system for setting expectations, coaching and measuring performance how can we, as representatives of the manufacturing community, possibly expect the physical environment to cause a new approach to come into being?

As I re-read what I’ve written here, I suspect that it might sound like I’m picking on the organizations that are struggling to figure out their new ways of working.  Actually, I’m picking on the ones who won’t invest in the struggle, those who are looking for easy answers. I’d like to remind these organizations of the old saying, “garbage in-garbage out”. To read the Network Paper in its entirety, download here. And find us on Facebook and Twitter. Let’s keep the conversation going.

Jan Johnson, FIIDA, is VP of Design and Workplace Resources at Allsteel, manufacturer of office furniture.  She has focused on the correlation between business strategies and the workplace. She has a degree in interior design and a Master’s in business administration and has worked as an interior designer and strategic planner for her own firm and Perkins + Will, and as a workplace consultant for HOK/Consulting. She leads Allsteel’s Workplace Advisory team and the development and delivery of content and tools that support clients and design organizations as they plan, design and manage work environments.

Ways We Work is a blog series.

Categories: Ideas, Workplace Interiors