Sunday, September 30, 2007

“Officle,” or “Awficle?”

A few weeks ago I was attending one of the major trade shows and sitting in on a case study presentation a friend was giving when one of those horribly awkward moments we all dread occurred. The case study centered on a major restack project in very trying circumstances, including the move to an open plan standard in order to accommodate growth. Not only was the staff of this professional services firm leaving private offices, but the new workstations were significantly smaller. Even Partners of the firm were making the switch due to space constraints. Needless to say, no matter how good the project was from an aesthetic design and implementation perspective, this project team had a very tall mountain to climb.

It was in the context of explaining this situation that my friend created the moment all speakers dread. In describing how the project team designed new amenities into the project to offset the sense of loss he mentioned that they installed sliding doors on each cubicle to enhance privacy, and quipped “some staff are even calling them Officles now!” Immediately from the middle of the room a loud bass voice boomed, “How are you spelling that? A-w-f-i-c-l-e?” Needless to say, the room went suddenly and painfully quiet.

My friend stumbled for a few awkward seconds, then recovered and went on. But the damage had been done. The presentation was itself, in fact, a perfect case study of a very good project that didn't get the credit it deserved because of the expectation gap. Sound like any open plan projects you’ve been involved with recently?

The fact is that offices are an emotional issue, and that will never change. When space and finances are constrained the temptation to increase space efficiency and improve operating costs becomes very seductive. But all of that advantage comes at a cost. As the FM leading or managing a large open plan transition project you have to anticipate and respond to the real, perceived, and emotional needs of your customers. This project team was on the right track, providing new amenities in the effort to overcome the negatives associated with squeezing the space. That is an important tactic, but it is only one. Here are a few others that you should have in your bag of tricks.

Know the “why” and sell it hard. The knowing comes from having done your homework, from having developed and analyzed multiple options until you arrive at a fact-based conclusion. Great. Now inform the staff. Don’t expect an initial positive response no matter how much you communicate or how hard you try to sell the outcome. And don’t become defensive over the reaction. It’s natural and part of the transition process. Your job is to help staff make that transition. Instead of meeting their initial resistance with a defensive or hurt attitude, continue to inform and advise.

Develop a set of guiding principles. Establishing clear project expectations and rules of the road at the outset will keep you on track and help diffuse the occasional wayward gripe. These principles should be viewed as your “True North.” They are litmus tests against which options and issues can be judged, helping to clarify and simplify the project. Again, communicate them broadly and draw the connecting line between them and your final solution.

Engage influencers from among your customer base as part of the project team. When you do this, make them a real part of the team. Let them help you identify the issues, options, and solutions. Give them an equal voice in the process and include them in all of your activities. Take them on the factory tours with you. By walking with you they will develop an understanding of the issues and be able to represent the project to their contemporaries in a way you cannot. Including them demonstrates to staff that you are making the effort to consider and respond to real issues even in the midst of a challenging project environment, you are not simply shoe horning people into the smallest possible footprint without engaging them. One big thing to remember is paying for their time. Include staff salaries and fringes in your project budget for these “non-FM” types you want to include on your project team. If they have to do it as an added duty you’re going to lose the priority game more often than not and be left with a sometime partner that you can’t count on and who is ineffective in their role. Buy their time up front.

Periodically ask all employees for their input. Do this only when there is an issue that has potentially significant affect on the office culture or project acceptance. Keep the surveys tightly focused and make sure that you share the analysis and conclusions. Later on you can draw another line, between this input and your design solution. For example, in one recent project we surveyed staff regarding operable windows at our new headquarters facility. Because of the fifty year tradition of operable windows the response was predictably strong in their favor. However, the survey identified tradeoffs required to support the choice for operable windows, such as difficulty managing the HVAC system to maintain comfort levels, project elements that would have to be cut in order to pay the additional cost, etc. It is easy to do surveys today using electronic survey tools which are readily available, but be thoughtful and strategic about using them.

Give something back. Everyone knows what the acronym WIFM means and everyone expects an answer. Your customers are no different. They are giving up space and privacy, make sure you give them something in return. This might be upgraded finishes or furniture, the ability to accessorize their space on the project budget, some limited form of personalization, or possibly other perks such as subsidized gym memberships or increased personal technology. There may be additional costs for providing these, but it will be a fraction of the cost of redesigning and reworking space because disgruntled staff lobby for and get changes after the fact.

Any time you are on a project that has this Private to Open transition element in it, you are in for a ride. But, it is also an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, develop connections, increase credibility, and deliver excellence. Make sure you take full advantage of it.

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