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Change Management and Workplace Design

HGA Architects, San Jose, Silicon Valley, Bay Area, Workplace design
Photos by Garrett Rowland

By Winfield S. Roney

What are employees’ greatest fears about change management?

The biggest fear here is the word “change.” Let’s face it, no one likes change. I wish we had another word for this because “change” gets a bit overused these days and everyone has their own definition of what it should mean. In terms of how this impacts workplace design and management; it comes down to communication, and a lot of it.

HGA Architects, San Jose, Silicon Valley, Bay Area, Workplace design
Photos by Garrett Rowland

Today, most employees are fearful about how change will affect them personally and if they will be treated fairly. Will my workspace be downsized? Will I have an assigned workspace or not? Will I have enough privacy and choices in how and where I work? What happens to the executives – how will this impact them, and are they ready to change with us?

Successful organizations evolve over time, and as a result of adjusting to market conditions, the workplace needs to change with it. Look at Apple, in 1996 they were in big trouble, but 20 years later they are the largest and one of the most admired companies in the world. Did Apple’s workplace stay the same? No, it has matured and evolved over time and has become more closely aligned with its brand, culture and ideals.

What processes do architecture/interior design firms put in place to help get to know the client? (focus groups, workshops, shadowing, etc.)

We do all of the above – focus groups, workshops, shadowing – when we engage with our clients, but it depends on the organization and the culture. Some companies are very inclusionary and have no problem getting a good mix of folks involved; others like to have more control over the communication process.

While controlling how information, and change, gets communicated within an organization is important, it can also be risky. It can be dangerous when a company tries to control everything and starts to withhold important information. People like to be in the know and the rumor mill is often the breeding ground for false information being circulated. That’s why we encourage the companies we work with to start the process of engaging its workforce early on – ideally, as the planning process is just starting. Gathering input and feedback from a wide cross section of employees is really critical to implementing successful workplace changes.

Another area where we can support our clients is by helping them evaluate their readiness to support change and by defining the degree of change required in terms of organization, culture and behavior. For instance – how do your leaders communicate with employees? Will they model the desired behavior? What policies are in place to support things like workplace flexibility? Can your current technologies support your vision?

These are all fundamental questions to ask before you initiate any changes.

HGA Architects, San Jose, Silicon Valley, Bay Area, Workplace design
Photos by Garrett Rowland

Do these processes add to the overall project timeline?

No, it shouldn’t. If done correctly, it can save time, because you can avoid costly changes late in the design and implementation process. Successful change management should be done concurrently with planning and design, not as an afterthought. However, without buy-in from key management or the C-suite, in particular, there is the potential for some disruption to the schedule. We have seen this happen and it can create havoc and result in a lot of wasted energy and resources.

Can these processes actually help educate the employees and alleviate the anxieties of change management?

Yes, these processes absolutely do provide for a much smoother workplace transformation, especially when making more radical adjustments in the workplace typology. But change management should begin the moment the project is announced. Trust is at the core of effective change management and organizations can build/maintain that trust early on through simple employee engagement. Ideally, the conversation should always start with ‘we heard you.’ The more engaged the employees are the more credible the solution appears. Some clients seem to fear that by engaging employees, they will lose control of the project. In reality, it is a tremendous opportunity.

An example might be providing employees (or groups of employees) a say in how their individual workspaces need to function or be configured. Additionally, you may want to include them in how the overall space will be designed (i.e. location and type of amenities, numbers and sizes of meeting spaces, etc.).

HGA Architects, San Jose, Silicon Valley, Bay Area, Workplace design
Photos by Garrett Rowland

How does the company size impact the change management process?

Company size does matter.

With larger companies, it is important to use multiple tools (face-to-face meetings and technology-based platforms) to engage employees in the conversation. The more communication the better, but this does require a bit more planning on the front end. Group workshops for information sharing and updates need to be planned well in advance. We also use smaller focus groups with larger companies where employees are more likely to speak up, ask questions and provide feedback. This is where the objections are usually encountered. It’s important to get these out early, so the project team can address them.

With smaller companies we use the same process but it will likely be less time-consuming to get employees involved and providing important guidance. The bottom line is that no matter how big a company is, change management is really not an option when considering new workplace strategies – it is one of the best investments a company can make.

Winfield S. Roney, AIA, LEED-AP, Vice President/Principal and National Corporate Market Sector Leader at HGA Architects in San Jose, California