Change in working environments can come as a consequence of events such as mergers, consolidation of business units, the introduction of new technologies and efficiencies, or issues as mundane as the expiration of a lease. But as is well-known, the prospect of change— no matter how beneficial the intended outcome—is rarely greeted with unreserved enthusiasm by those who stand to be affected.
“It is natural for people to want to know why changes are taking place; and if left uninformed, it is just as natural for them to conjure up their own ‘worst-case’ explanations,” says David Weinberg, director and head of M Moser Associates’ New York office.
Indeed, effective communication—before and during the change process—can be the pivotal factor not only in thwarting the resentment (e.g., over loss of personal space and perceived status related to that space), suspicion (e.g., change perceived as punishment or as a cynical vehicle for “divide and rule”), and uncertainty (e.g., from the dissolution of familiar patterns of communication and work) that can potentially mar transitions from old to new environments, but also in actually fostering a positive anticipation of change. And to this end, workplace design specialists ideally are poised to make a valuable contribution.
A mechanism of communication is crucial to the client’s change management program. Our ultimate purpose of physically manifesting change, after all, requires us to communicate effectively. We need to discover and respond to human behavior, requirements, and concerns—and often that means a great deal of constructive interaction with end-users and management alike.
Communication Through Discovery
Discovery begins through dialogues between client decision-makers and design specialists—the latter ideally comprising designers, strategists, IT specialists, engineers, and construction professionals working synchronously within an integrated project delivery system.
These discussions are best initiated at the earliest possible stage of project development, as initially they can serve the purpose of establishing the design brief and ensuring that major cost-binding decisions—such taking up an appropriate space—can correctly be made. “But as the design evolves, the dialogue becomes more detailed, examining intangible business goals, corporate culture and values,” Weinberg explains. At this stage, the needs of those who must live with the changes are addressed, with corporate communications, human resources, IT, public relations, and security all embraced as essential participants in the process.
Management can facilitate understanding of change by using “push-pull” communications tools—including interviews, seminars, requests for suggestions, surveys, and other interactive exercises—that address the concerns of both stakeholders and staff focus groups.
“As well as providing information that will help channel design development, these exercises also invite participants to take ‘ownership’ of—and by extension, consent to—impending changes to their working environment,” adds Bill Bouchey, M Moser’s director of design in New York. Sources of change-related friction are resolved or at least eased, and the risk of employee turnover, the loss of knowledge, lowered productivity, and increased absenteeism, is reduced.
Empowerment and Pilot Spaces
Depending on the circumstances, management also may want to evaluate a range of possible solutions using a pilot space before committing to a final design concept. As well as being an excellent means of optimizing the design, these fully furnished, full-scale prototype spaces can also present an opportunity to further solidify staff empowerment and ‘buy-in’ to change.
Groups of staff members can be invited to tour the space and comment on the suitability of the options. Each can be rated using specific data regarding overall appearance, finish, quality, price, and function. By facilitating a free exchange of ideas, doubts, and anxieties, this consensus-driven approach can lead to a fuller understanding of the design among staff and management alike, and an important endorsement of the eventual definitive design direction.
Familiarity Enhances Performance
“The fundamental aim of change management is nurturing realistic expectations among all those whose working lives are to be affected by change. People don’t just want to know why change is coming, the form it will take, and how it will impact them as individuals—if the change is to occur smoothly, they genuinely need to know,” says Bouchey.
And, on a more profound level, so do designers. “Our place is at the intersection of the client’s strategic aims and practical requirements, and the cultural/personal needs of the end-user,” Weinberg explains. “We need to understand in order to design effectively—and to understand, we need to learn. The magic of the process is that the learning goes two ways. Everybody involved goes away with less anxiety of what’s around the corner.”