Plan B

Encouraging flexibility in creatures of habit (the end user).

When we start messing with people’s work spaces, we start messing with their heads. There’s no other way around it, and it has to be acknowledged.

This is why workplace is about people, not spaces.

Spaces are easy. People are not; they are the sum of their own experiences and chemical wiring which is different to yours.

Each and every one of us has preferences that meet our own personal interpretation of pleasure, be it comfort, risk, safety, adrenaline, exposure, shelter, luxury or parsimony. If you find a good coffee place (good being subjective to your preferences) you go there the next day. If it is shut on the third day, you feel let down, right? Pleasure rituals are formed hard and fast.

I am often asked how, in a shared office environment, to stop people using the same space (desk / sofa / nook) each day. The answer is: you do not. You are not going to stop people creating preferences. Should you care if Bob repeatedly sits at the same desk? No more than you should care if he decided to wear his Christmas socks in June. Does it affect his productivity and required levels of engagement to deliver his role? Possibly, it depends on the set up, or position, of the desk….and how he’s made.

Engagement sessions at the start of the project may not reveal Bob’s singular preferences. But that’s ok. And the reason that’s OK is because not only are you going to be actively listening to everything your focus group discussions raise, including reading between the lines, you’re also going to be creating a wide variety of space types, with a variety of furniture, providing choice to cater for the broad, magnificent specimen that is office-bound humanity in as many guises as is viable.

But Bob’s going to set up home in a specific location which will then become ‘his’. How is that fair?

sheldon's spot

Plan ‘A’ – not always available (source:edition.cnn.com)

Now I’m going to assume that Bob’s just a creature of habit, that he’s a pretty easy going, if a little oblivious, guy with a perfectly understandable aversion to mornings. He likes his morning routine: it’s easy and he doesn’t have to think (we’ve all been there).

What does matter, and needs to be discussed openly, without identifying Bob, in a pre-move workshop is: What happens if you come in and someone has taken your favourite spot? The answer: Always have a Plan B. In a first come, first served environment jut because you like a particular space does not mean it is yours and yours alone. You have a choice of spaces, many of which are going to replicate your preferred spot in some form. Are you going to be mean and deliberately target Bob’s seat? Well that’s an interesting proposal Mr/s Workshop Delegate. Group, what are your views on that? Does it tie in with company culture?

To help identify Plan B’s, and support Bob in his quest for the perfect spot, the first day of a new, shared working environment should be more about trying out different spots, having a series of stand-up ‘space introduction’ sessions where you learn about how to meet an individual’s practical necessities, as well as the fun cool things. And Day 1 of the new office should start on the following day.

So when I walked into the office to find my new boss sitting at ‘my’ desk (the perfect desk, the flyby* desk, the ‘back against the wall’ desk) on his first day the voice in my head was shocked and horrified. So I just sat next to him and got on with some work.

 


*Flyby: People walk past it before they notice it, or you, are there.

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Bob and the Auditors

To resist change effectively, you need tactics and insider knowledge….

We battle-weary commuters come to know the patterns of our rush-hour comrades, not least because they mimic our own, right down to seat preference; anything over a year of taking (nearly) the same train, and targeting the same seats, leaves you knowing many of those you travel with by sight. Or you may break through the etiquette barrier and actually start conversing.

A friend of mine, let’s call him Bob, works in the city doing strange, incomprehensible things with global finance. He has more understanding about what I do – not least because he has an allocated desk, works in an office environment and has a rigid hierarchy structure reinforced by the provision of enclosed offices.

Recently, Bob and I met while striding down the platform to ‘our’ carriage.

‘Glad I saw you,’ he called out across the herd of stampeding wildebeest that are commuters on their home run, ‘I need your help. But we’ll talk when off the train.’ He performed a ‘never know who is listening’ finger wiggle at his head, narrowly avoiding clocking those nearby with his old-school attaché case.

A few minutes later we sat opposite each other. Initially, I was lost as to how he needed me. Our professional lives are polar opposites. I have no global interests worth financing (apparently, holidays do not count). Our work place theory debates have ended with his comedic sneer and a mock raised eyebrow. Then I twigged.

‘Oh God,’ I said, ‘You want to know how to stop the change, don’t you?’
‘Yep,’ he said, grinning, ‘You’re going to be my informant!’

Dang…..

His office has the work place consultants in. Strangers have been seen slowly walking through the offices, stabbing away at tablets while wearing broad, not exactly reassuring smiles while they scrutinise.

The train arrives at the terminus, our home station; we are last off the train and drag our heels up the long platform.

‘We’re having a storage audit,’ Bob said, ‘they want us to go paperless.’ He pulled a face. Bob went on to tell me that his field has contracts as thick as phone directories and as plentiful as the tomes stored in  L-Space. They refer to them ‘Oh, quite often’; his tone of voice and body language hinted otherwise.Bob's contract

‘I’m not bothered about a desk,’ he said, ‘I can work anywhere, but the contracts are a different thing. Is there a way I can argue for keeping them, what’s the lingo?’

“You want me to give you insider information,” I said “you want to know how to use their language against them as a resistance technique?”

Bob does not squirm very often (nerves of viperously competitive steel, that man) but I warrant that he does not get questioned about his work preferences that often, either. At least not by someone who knows this field, knows how to push his buttons and has a friendship that means a work place related grilling can be far more robust than those I have at work.

It turns out that his employer wanted everyone to transition to agile working; the cost efficiencies were attractive. Only the hand at the consultant’s tiller didn’t seem to be very strong.

Everyone has gone to non-allocated desking, however there are now more desks than there are people, the majority have successfully pushed to retain non-standard desks and chairs citing:

‘Questionable unique needs.’ said Bob.
“Despite the fact that the best solution for adapting to a desk lies with knowing how to use your chair properly.” said I, with dogmatic fervour.

Ultimately, allocated desking remains, albeit unofficially.

It’s a merry dance we lead, encouraging people that change has its benefits. In brutal honestly, I have probably heard every reason going why people cannot change and why the work place should remain static, or even revert to times gone by. There are times when I have been momentarily stunned, and times when the only way to stifle a laugh is to bite down hard. And the unfortunate fact remains that for every end user’s timed-to-the-minute report proving why change is not possible, any work place consultant worth their salt has a way around it.

When change reaches the individual, it needs a darn steady hand on the tiller to deliver that change effectively for the business, the stakeholders and the end users. Given the choice, none of us want change – unless we are leading it.

In my experience the best way to deliver change is for the client to have strong leadership in delivering the change message – and a commitment to sustaining work place change beyond the length of the project – combined with a bottom-up engagement and communication strategy. Engaging with a select, fair and representative group of end users ensures they feel more part of the process and are more ready for new working methods. The consultants will need a clear instruction of end goal, remits of the end users areas of influence, and a steely determination to challenge resistance while they guide people forward.

One person cannot carry a successful change, but they can certainly whip up support for resistance.

So, did I become Bob’s informant? Of course I did, the man stands his pub round without prompting.