Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The importance of space

I think that it is possible for employees to determine aspects of the work environment especially if management is oblivious to the importance of work environment.

For instance, at my former organization, we changed locations midway through my tenure. I took the opportunity to change the configuration of office.

In the old space, the drivers and transportation office occupied cramped, noisy space out of sight of visitors to the office. And there was a little window from dispatch to the hallway by the elevators. The other office staff were in a wide open, bright loft space, except for the Finance Director who was in another corner tucked away from any interaction with the rest of the staff.

A couple of things were at play partly as a result. The drivers and dispatch felt disrespected and not part of the "real" organization. And the physical environment fed that, because their work space was awful. Plus that little window gave them access to and a relationship with the outside world - drivers never even had to come into the office to transact some business.

Meanwhile, the office staff - people who did fundraising and marketing and worked with food donors and agencies that got and distributed food - felt that the transportation staff was really unprofessional and didn't really appreciate all they did. And of course, no one really got how important Finance was.

It got so bad that people talked about "Park Avenue" and "The Ghetto." Guess which was which!

In the new space, we designed it so that the first thing anyone sees when they come off the elevators and into the office is the dispatch office. It's the heart of the operation, with a big glass wall. The rest of the space is open and loft-like. There are offices on two walls, all of which have lots of glass and light streaming through. People from different departments are seated together, to encourage sharing of information. Drivers have a locker room and dedicated computers where they can work when they come in. They have to enter the office to get to the kitchen, to their mailboxes, to the computers, so they are visible to office workers, and vice versa.

In the old space, people could take the unspoken messages and create their own interpretation - so it was frightening for some office staff to interact with drivers, and vice versa. When we hired new drivers, we found the most successful were those who already knew a bunch of drivers. This was not the greatest thing if we wanted to have a more professional attitude. But the new, unrelated drivers were driven out by a cliquish culture that demanded certain attitudes and behavior. Obviously, we had to change our hiring practices and performance management systems as well. But changing the physical space helped A LOT! Just being treated more professionally and with respect, and as part of, not apart from, helped drivers view themselves as professionals.

Similarly, the majority of the office staff was white women when I arrived. And they were their own clique, who made it very difficult for Jewish or Latino or African-American women or men to feel part of "the gang." So I made some key hires and moved some people from their choice offices to make room for the new people, thereby signaling that some of the new people had status, and mixing people up so they had to relate to people not exactly like them. We had some people who left, and that was OK because the people who stayed loved the diversity and the feeling that everyone was part of the same big organization rather than part of a little clique.

Interestingly enough, I encountered resistance from some of my direct reports about the space configuration when we moved. They wanted all their staff to sit together rather than be interspersed throughout the space. It was such a short-sighted view, based on them wanting it to be really easy to supervise folks. Gradually, they came to see that it was better for the organization for people to sit near and get to know people from other departments, if only to familiarize them with other aspects of the organization. Later, some of them came to me to say I was right because the scattering of people led to new teams and new ideas surfacing from the most unexpected places - things that really helped the organization because you had people with different vantage points thinking about how to solve a common problem.

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