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A Customer-Driven Redesign

At GE Commercial Finance, a 2006 study showed that poor use of office space was actually hindering the company’s relationship with customers. Sharon Garavel, vice president of global operations and quality at GE Capital Solutions, says business clients were unhappy with how much time loan processing required, so the financial conglomerate launched a study of how the process worked.

The study pinpointed a major problem: the physical location of key employees. Loan approval required 22 different handoffs and two miles of walking, which meant loan approval dragged out for months. Franchise-lending operations were spread across two buildings, with different teams — legal, sales, closing — situated on different floors. “Much of this was due to the fact that we’d been organized by department,” Garavel says. “We decided to organize the business differently.”

Instead of isolating employees in single-function departments, GE created new, cross-functional teams so workers no longer had to walk or send documents back and forth between departments. After physically reassigning employees, loan processing time dropped to less than a month and required only seven handoffs.

Goal: Find out what they need up front, and keep them in the loop to avoid backlash.
Involving employees in a redesign is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s vital to know how they operate in order to create a space that’s more conducive to their work. On the other, asking them what they want can lead to unrealistic demands. As you gather input, be clear that you will try to address all concerns but that no one design can be perfect for everyone.

Once the new design has been chosen, let employees know what to expect, especially if the change will be significant. Make sure employees understand why the company is making each specific change. For example, if you’re moving people out of offices and into cubes, remind staff that the office now offers other perks: a souped-up dining area or benefits like concierge services, showers in bathrooms for lunchtime workouts, or a better cafeteria.

Gensler’s Tompkin says two types of redesigns create “cultural revolt”: a move from closed-door offices to open office space, and a move in which two companies are merging and creating a new culture. With an office-to-cubes situation, companies need to up the ratio of conference rooms from one conference seat per three people to one conference seat for every two people. With a merger, managers should remind employees of their role’s significance, reassure them that their importance continues, and then offer a rational business context for why they may have to move desks or cede space.

Big Idea
“If the physical environment is bad — it’s cold, smells, or makes workers distracted — then employees won’t work well. No amount of organizational shoe-shining will change that,” Tompkin says. “It’s Maslow’s pyramid — Psychology 101.” Tompkin refers to the hierarchy of human needs as outlined by Abraham Maslow in 1943.
According to Maslow, humans seek to satisfy a hierarchy of five types of needs, starting with the most basic physiological needs and ascending through a sense of safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. If workers feel unhealthy, Tompkin asserts, they won’t be able to tap their higher selves in the office. For more on putting Maslow's theories to work in business, see our Book Brief video “Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow .”

Goal:Make a list of the top priorities you want your redesign to address.
Once you’ve identified your biggest issues, decide which ones you want to attack. Both Tompkin and Bill Olechnowitz, director of interior architecture at Michael Willis Architects, recommend that companies evaluating an office redesign project identify four or five priorities to tackle, such as increased collaboration, improved productivity, or more efficient use of space.

At Group Health, a Washington-based insurer with 10,000 employees in more than 50 buildings, an in-house study quickly illustrated what the company’s design goals should be. The firm enlisted its employees to track their habits and found that at any given time, 40 percent of all cubicles or offices were sitting unoccupied. Many workers were in conference rooms or down the street at Starbucks, where they could more easily meet in teams. Others were toggling between multiple buildings and facilities. William Biggs, executive director of administrative services, asked his assistant to track his whereabouts. It turns out he spent less than 5 percent of his time at company headquarters.

“This was an epiphany for a number of company leaders,” Biggs says. “Our work had moved from individual to team-based. We needed to loosely pull groups together and then dismantle them, but that was difficult in our space.” Based on the study, Group Health defined three design goals: First, the office needed more conference space. Secondly, cubicle sizes could shrink somewhat since workers were increasingly spending time outside of them. Finally, mobile workers like Biggs needed “touch-down” space where they could check their e-mail and make phone calls when visiting different divisions of the company.

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