May 16, 2013

The Transparent Office

HM_LOGOHere is this month’s piece on the changing world of work from furniture maker Herman Miller, a company for which Peter Drucker long consulted and that continues to exemplify his principles of innovation and effectiveness.

While change itself has become business as usual for many organizations, managing it has not.

Indeed, the fact that many companies don’t invest enough time, energy or resources in managing change is one big reason that, according to Harvard Business Review, 70% of change initiatives fail.

One key breakdown: a lack of communication—a problem that Peter Drucker well understood. “Balancing change and continuity requires continuous work on information,” he wrote. “Nothing disrupts continuity and corrupts relationships more than poor or unreliable information.”

This is particularly true when it comes to making work-environment changes, whether an organization is doing so to support a new corporate culture or simply because a building lease has expired and there’s a need to relocate employees.

After all, when you change a person’s work setting, you’re doing more than changing furniture. People take their space personally, and all kinds of things run through their heads:Will people think I’m less influential because I no longer have a private office? Now that my boss and co-workers can see me all the time, will they be judging me?

Mollifying these concerns requires a constant flow of information.

Courtesy of Herman Miller

Courtesy of Herman Miller

Before the change, it’s helpful to establish a cross-functional “change team” to explain the ways in which the changes are linked to the company’s overall business strategy and goals. This group should also be charged with listening and bringing back information, helping identify sources of anxiety throughout the organization.

Indeed, face-to-face communication is best early in the process. Especially initially, people want to ask real people questions in real time so they can watch body language and assess for themselves whether or not management is being honest. This kind of contact builds trust.

Later in the process, a wide variety of other resources can be deployed. When Sygenta Seeds designed its new headquarters to support a more open, innovative culture, Herman Miller worked with the company to develop a website dedicated to the construction process, previews of a sample workstation, a building fair that showed details of the new building, site tours two weeks before move-in, and a 12-page welcome booklet that was waiting for employees on their desks on move-in day.

Whatever tools you use, the most important thing is to identify the relevant stakeholders and answer the question they all will have: What’s in it for me?

Along the way, be honest and forthright about implications. Trying to sugarcoat the losses from change—and some employees will inevitably feel like they’ve lost something of value—only undermines the trust that companies work so hard to build.

Before, during and even after the change, consciously over-communicate. Make the case for change again and again, at different times, in different places, using different mediums. People will be ready to hear different parts of the message at different points.

In the end, transparency should be at the core of how you manage any change to the workplace environment.

—Tracy Brower, PhD, Director of Performance Environments

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