"Advice Squad" is written by members of the Maine chapter of the Association of Consulting Expertise, a trade organization of 88 consultants around the state. This column is written by Fritz Steele, owner of Fritz Steele Consultants in York, which specializes in organizational effectiveness and transition management.
We are living in challenging times. Both for-profit and non-profit organizations are facing competition from all over the world. Technology and circumstances are changing rapidly and in unpredictable ways, making uncertainty a constant fact of life. As a result, there is very little cushion and no room for coasting unless the enterprise's survival is not a long-term goal. The old cliché about "working smarter" has never been more apt, and few leaders feel they have enough in reserve to invest in anything that doesn't show an immediate payback (and sometimes not even then).
Over the last 30 years or so, the physical work environment has become more clearly recognized as a component affecting an organization's ability to achieve continuous improvements. Workspace design and accompanying technology shapes day-to-day patterns of individual and collective work, including who sees whom during the day; which activities are generally visible and which are hidden; how easy it is to communicate; where people spend their time when doing individual work; and how easy it is to change work modes or rearrange how people and groups are located.
Unfortunately, these effects are less likely to be recognized or considered during the toughest economic times, precisely when changing them would make the most difference. They are dismissed prematurely because leaders tend to associate work environment changes with large investments of money and time, usually in moving, rebuilding or creating a new setting from scratch. One way to get beyond this barrier is a quick assessment of the current work environment and how well it meets projected needs. In performing this kind of "workplace audit" over a couple of days, we usually look at both physical features (such as relative locations, spatial layouts, boundaries, degree of visibility and transparency, etc.) and social aspects (assumptions about what places could or should be used for, group norms about use patterns, and policies that impose restrictions about use). The point is to discover potential low-cost/high-payoff upgrade opportunities.
For instance, when leaders are feeling out of space and too cramped, there often turn out to be a number of unused or underused areas in what city planners refer to as SLOIP (space left over in planning). In several instances, we have helped managers create desirable (and well-used) meeting or work spots out of corners and nooks that didn't fit neatly into the original layout. Storage areas are also often underutilized because of a shift to electronic records.
A client asked us to do an audit because they were "woefully short of meeting spaces" and didn't have the money or space to build more. It didn't take long to see it was a "sham shortage" — almost all meeting spaces were considered to be "owned" by the group sitting nearest to them. In practice that meant they had exclusive rights to the rooms, often refusing other groups' requests in case they might need them on short notice. The result was that the useful capacity was about one-third of the actual physical resources. When the meeting spaces were redefined as common property for all occupants of the building and placed on a public scheduling system, groups soon found that it was always possible to find a meeting space within the building.
These are just a few examples that show the possibilities for inexpensive changes in work settings. Here are a few other approaches that have proved quick, inexpensive and useful:
Some of these approaches make physical changes, while others simply require a shift in assumptions, formal policies or social constraints. You don't need to have a large budget in order to make a real difference, but you do need to have an open mind and a commitment to the importance of continued improvement to have your workplace working best for you.
Fritz Steele can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.