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Get on Board

By Ryan Bartelmay

Design solutions can, at times, end in disaster — even for the most educated, successful design professionals. A high-powered executive has a clear vision for his or her company, a design firm is hired, and the design team takes off. But by the time the space is complete, company employees can’t stand it, let alone work in it.

A scary situation, but nothing new to Diane Stegmeier, AIA, Owner of Stegmeier Consulting Group in Cleveland. 
Over the past decade, she has witnessed countless situations where end-users resisted a workplace transformation. “Even when physical space solutions are appropriately designed, there are many times when a designer is going to find himself or herself in a situation where things aren’t going well,” says Stegmeier, author of the forthcoming Innovations in Office Design: The Critical Influence Approach to Effective Work Environments. In conducting research for the book, she spent 10 years working with American and European architects and interior designers, and found that workplace strategies often fail because employees resist change.

One of her favorite examples occurred in 2006, when she supported the design team in the redesign of the outdated offices of a Philadelphia-based business-to-business service provider. Stegmeier was hired to help the CEO implement his vision by facilitating the transformation. He was concerned with the company’s lack of innovation and recognized collaboration as a means to improve innovative outputs. The CEO’s idea was ambitious: to completely transform the company’s space from the top down. Executives were to move out of their private offices into a more open leadership environment, directors would move from smaller offices to dedicated workstations, and the remaining staff would relocate to unassigned workspaces in a very open environment.

But the redesign concept didn’t go over as smoothly as planned. In fact, the greatest resistance came from senior leaders, those reporting directly to the CEO. “During the planning stages, one senior [executive] was so vocal about his opposition to the transformation that he adamantly refused to move out of his private office,” Stegmeier says. “The issue was a psychological loss of power. In his mind, losing his private office meant he was going to be less important in the eyes of the other employees.” Worst of all, his bad attitude trickled down through the ranks and soured other employees’ perceptions.

That executive’s perspective is not uncommon. “There may always be complaints when a workplace change is announced because most [employees] anticipate that the change will be for the worse,” says Dean Strombom, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, Gensler Houston. 

The good news? “Things can [always] be turned around,” Stegmeier says. To facilitate these turnarounds, designers must open the lines of communication to ensure user buy-in.

Ready for Push-back

During workplace redesigns, nine times out of 10, designers are faced with opposition from entrenched employees, says Elise Friedman Shapiro, IIDA, Senior Facilities Planner, Booz Allen Hamilton, McLean, Va. “You’re never going to please 100 percent of the people,” she says. “But managing the communication between the [executives] and the employees about why the workspace is changing can help the acceptance of the workspace.”

Clearly the executive from the service provider in Philadelphia believed any change to his office environment would be for the worse. In an effort to sabotage the redesign, he even culled together magazine articles examining the negative effect of open office environments and marched into the CEO’s office armed with ammunition to shoot down the redesign. Knowing that the executive hadn’t actually done his homework, the CEO instructed him to read all the articles before any discussions would take place. After reading the articles, a strange thing happened: The executive became one of the biggest proponents of the redesign. 

Friedman Shapiro dealt with employee push-back while managing the recent redesign of Booz Allen Hamilton’s Chicago office. The project involved transforming a 1980s-era office space with private, dark-wood offices into an open, reservation-style office. But during the redesign, many long-term employees wanted their private offices back. On the flip side, younger employees appreciated the fact that the new design unshackled them from their desks, forcing them to interact with employees and form workplace bonds.

Getting everyone on board was a challenge. “We had an employee who had been with the company for 30 years and another one for 35 years,” Friedman Shapiro says. “If you think about all the design evolution they’ve experienced in that time and all the technology they had to learn, there’s no wonder they resisted.”

To facilitate the transition into the new workspace, her team created mock-ups of the new space and communicated to employees how things would change. “The entrenched employees realized change was inevitable but teamed with us to work through it,” she says.

The results are evident in the office’s changed atmosphere. “The office is consistently busier and better utilized than the old incarnation,” Friedman Shapiro says.

While business leaders bear much of the responsibility in promoting the acceptance of a new workspace, they often lean on designers for insight into how to secure employee acceptance. “Not all design firms are comfortable helping the client drive the transformation,” Stegmeier says. “But it’s absolutely critical for designers to have some responsibility.”

Let's Talk About It

An open dialogue between designers, clients and endusers is a must to figure out what is needed versus what is wanted in a new workspace.

“Employees spend a great deal of their time in the workplace. If they are not involved in decisions that impact their space, they are less likely to support the change,” Strombom says. Seeking input from those who most often utilize the space is crucial, and acceptance is “more likely if the designer listens well and can show how the solution responds to [end-user] concerns.”

To keep an open dialogue, a well-mapped communication strategy should be implemented that engages the end-users and takes their needs into consideration. “Before any drawing occurs, it’s important to learn as much as possible about the industry in general,” Strombom says. “The programming phase is the time to dig out qualitative as well as quantitative issues — listen, understand and then deliver.”

A few years ago, Strombom and his design team heeded this advice when they were tapped to design a new research and development facility for Schlumberger, an oil field service provider in Rosharon, Texas. By observing the clients going about their daily routines and conducting visioning sessions in which employees and leadership groups discussed what’s unique about their company, the design team learned how important safety is to Schlumberger’s employees.

Armed with this knowledge, the team incorporated graphics into the design that reminded employees to think about safety. “The graphics reinforced their culture,” Strombom says, which ultimately helped promote acceptance of the newly designed facility.

To better learn the culture of a client, Linda Porter Bishop, IIDA, AAHID, ASID, LEED AP, Interiors Studio Leader at WHR Architects in Houston, suggests designers immerse themselves in the industry. “Sometimes administrators see designers as people who just pick color,” says Porter Bishop, who designs healthcare facilities. To disspell that notion, she reads research articles from The New England Journal of Medicine and other medical journals. This helps her understand the issues facing hospital administrators, doctors, nurses and other staff.

The Follow-through

Communication can’t end after conceptualization. Rather, to help shore up end-user buy-in, communication and evaluation must extend throughout the entire design process.

During the two years it took to complete the design of Booz Allen Hamilton’s Chicago facility, Friedman Shapiro conducted focus groups and took employees on tours of mock-ups. In her research, she found employees were concerned about acoustics and privacy, and tried to incorporate their feedback in the design. “We didn’t throw everybody into open pens, and we tried to accommodate the employees’ daily activities,” she says. “We provided places where they could hunker down to have a teleconference or a meeting.” Listening to the end-users and taking their concerns into consideration ultimately benefited acceptance of the workplace solution.

Once the design is complete, designers should also help end-users transition into the new work environment.When users move into new spaces, Strombom advocates providing “move-in kits” that include information on where to find necessities and amenities. “[We provide] a brochure that describes how the new space is intended to work; a map that shows where the employee will find coffee, restrooms, copy machines and supplies; and protocols for how to use the space,” he says.

Porter Bishop suggests designers hold in-service workshops to teach users how to maximize the new space. It’s difficult for employees to break old habits, she says, and without a tutorial about the design solution, employees won’t take advantage of the space’s updates and improvements.

After end-users have a chance to embody the space, post-occupancy surveys help design teams make necessary tweaks. To allow for this, flexibility should be built into the workspace. Strombom favors a “kit-of-parts approach where the personal workspace footprint may be universal, but the layout and components within the workstation might be different, depending on job function.”

For one project, his team utilized stackable workstation panels, so the height of the panels could be lowered or raised, depending on the user’s needs. Upon initial occupancy, the panels were set at 54 inches, but after the users worked in the space for a period of time, Strombom’s team came back at the client’s request and raised the panels to 70 inches on major pathways and lowered them to 38 inches in other places. “The postoccupancy study later revealed appreciation for the forethought of flexibility,” Strombom says.

Post-occupancy surveys can also impact future projects by helping design teams know what to avoid or do differently the next time, Porter Bishop says. Whether that future project is commissioned by the current client or a new one, aspiring for perfection with every project is a must.

“This is a service industry,” she says. “It’s about the relationships [you are] building. You have to provide a good service or you won’t get called back.”

Corporate designs aren’t the only ones that require end-user support. For several years, healthcare designers have been actively listening and utilizing research to deliver design solutions, says Linda Porter Bishop, IIDA, AAHID, ASID, LEED AP, WHR Architects, Houston. “Not only do you have to listen to [the client’s] vision, but you have to understand their culture to help them get the workspace that they want but are having problems verbalizing,” she says.

Instead of just meeting with toplevel executives to discuss designs, healthcare designers often conduct meetings with stakeholders when making decisions about space adjacencies, size of rooms and the work-flow layout, Porter Bishop says. “I started my career designing schools, and it bothered me that when decisions were being made about the space, the only people consulted were from the superintendent’s office or the principal of the school. They never asked a teacher.”

Recently, when designing a healthcare facility in the Northeast, Porter Bishop strongly urged that not only administrators be present at key decision-making meetings, but also a representative from each department that would occupy and use the space. "The worker bees, the people who actually deliver care to the patients - nurses, housekeepers, unit clerks, infection-control specialists - should be making the decisions about what the space is going to look like."