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A Humanistic Approach to Space

The next, greatest idea for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s multifunction printer/fax/copy machines and high performance ink jet printers may be born on a new sort of boulevard for dreamers.

Nestled in a 1.1-million-square-foot research and development facility about 25 miles north of San Diego amid 3,000 office cubiclessit 14 environmental engineers and site services employees. They spend their days in an open area filled with portable furniture. Their work space is a free-form experiment where teamwork is emphasized and personal space is kept to a ​minimum.

Cutting through the area is a boulevard, where groups of computer and engineering employees from other divisions can congregate on their way to the coffee machine to informally discuss ideas and approaches to new projects.

"It's kind of a research and development program for office environments," says Robert C. Jakubowski, a Hewlett-Packard Co. workplace strategist.

"We are creating more open space for teams where people can interact impromptu."

This pilot project, one of seven ongoing at the site, began in June 1997. It is one of many office design experiments companies are conducting to trim real estate costs and improve communication, performance and productivity.

In some cases, companies are abandoning the one-size-fits-all concept of using either cubicles or offices. Instead, they are adopting a hybrid approach in which open spacescomplete with video and projection screensare available for team projects and group discussions, and private spaces are used for work that requires deep concentration. Employees who need solitude may have their own offices. Those who do not mayfor short periodsuse small portable booths, such as the "personal harbors" developed by Steelcase Inc.

While these new approaches to office space may produce different space configurations, they share a critical element: They work best when HR is involved in the process. When most organizations are designing office spaces, they need to consider their employeestheir human resourcesand the way those individuals do their jobs. And that means HR professionals are, or should be, included in the office redesign teams from the outset as a matter of successful business strategy.

"The HR professional is the key to the success of projects like this," says Jakubowski. "It's two sides of the same coin."

Overcoming past design mistakes

When companies introduced the cubicle concept in the late 1970s, they failed to tie design to employee productivity. Employers "didn't change the work environment" when they added cubicles, says Gary E. Wheeler, former president of the American Society of Interior Designers and the national director for interiors at Perkins & Will, an architecture, engineering and interiors firm based in Chicago. "About five or six years ago, companies said, This isn't solving a problem, it's actually creating more problems.'"

Cubicleswhich were intended to improve communicationoften had the opposite effect because employees became concerned about privacy.

"If people can't control the communication, they actually communicate less," says Bill Sims, a Cornell University professor of facility management and planning. Sims is also the author of Team Space: Creating and Managing Environment To Support Highly Productive Teamwork, to be published by the International Development Research Council in Atlanta this month.

To solve the problems caused by cubicles, organizations need to transform their physical offices to ones that encourage cooperative work. Companies need to adopt a "caves and common areas" approach. This provides employees small, quiet places to work, as well as their own team areas for spontaneous collaboration, Sims says.

For example, offices might include more open space and dedicated project rooms. By setting aside rooms for the duration of a project, rather than scheduling them hourly, employers allow workers to keep brainstorming and development ideas posted as long as they wish, which should help them remain focused on a specific mission.

The key is to integrate the physical environment with technology, management practices and work practices. This allows employees to move where they are needed and "to work where they are the most productive and will be supported," Sims says.

Evaluation of work space begins with the job, experts say. Some jobs dictate that an employee always have an office. In other jobs, employees frequently interact with co-workers and should probably work in open spaces. For example, software programmers or copywriters may need totally private space, but HR executives might spend most of their time in an open area and need access to private rooms only for interviewing. Customer service departments may work better in totally open areas, where it will be easier for employees to help one another answer customer queries.

"It's an alignment between space and a team's mission," says Janis R. Evink, a research specialist in the Ideation Group at Haworth Inc., an office furniture manufacturer in Holland, Mich.

Organizations that want to stick with cubicles should consider some options. Stagger the cubicles, rather than line them up in groups of six or eight, suggests Wheeler. "If I can see them, they can hear me," Wheeler says. "You should start breaking the line of sight and encouraging people to talk into the (cubicle) corners, not the hall."

New views on design

The dominant feature of new office environments is the central street or boulevard that cuts through a variety of departments and must be used to reach coffee and vending machines or cafeterias. These corridors provide a place for spontaneous interaction among employees. Often these corridors are wider than other halls and lead to a work or team area with tables, wall rails for coffee cups, and whiteboards for writing or drawing.

By providing this space, companies encourage "informal learning and networking" that can result in new ways to improve performance, says Arlyn Vogelmann, a strategic planner in the Boston office of Gensler Architecture Design & Planning Worldwide. "Companies need to be really creative about how people interact and support creativity within the workplace. Ideas and intellectual capital are the name of the game."

The shift in design mirrors changing perceptions about the best way to develop products or services, as gatherings by a coffee machine are no longer presumed to be focused on the latest episode of Seinfeld

"In the past, standing at the water cooler was frowned upon as gossipingnow it's encouraged," Wheeler says. "That's where new ideas happen."

A survey released this January by the Center for Workforce Development in Newton, Mass., supports Wheeler's views. For the employees of the seven companies examined, informal learning "served to fulfill most learning needs, perhaps as much as 70 percent," according to Monika Aring, co-director of the research project. The study concluded that employers that encourage informal learningsuch as interaction between workers of different skill levelscan help employees acquire critical job skills more quickly and easily.

One of the companies in the study, Siemens Power Transmission and Distribution in Raleigh, N.C., learned that employees were using the lunchroom to carry on informal discussions about workplace problems. The company encouraged further communication by installing flip charts and overhead projectors in the area.

Such casual meetings may be the best chance for employees from other departments to meet informally. As Jakubowski points out, "Knowledge creation is not a scheduled event."

Smoothing the transition

At Hewlett-Packard's San Diego site, the HR department now serves as the liaison among the designers, site service staff and employees. HR serves to ensure that an office redesign "works for the company and for the employees," says Janet Di Prinzio, HR services manager at the San Diego site. "We are used to dealing with people. We can say This is an issue,' and really look at what the root cause is. We know the customer."

For example, when Hewlett-Packard began planning a new building at the site about two years ago, Di Prinzio facilitated a series of employee meetings to discuss the new design, proposed work space areas, furniture and how employees would work best in the new area. Their ideas, which helped employees develop a sense of ownership, were shared with the company management and the design team.

Resolving problems and calming fears may be the primary roles for HR professionals. Often, the change-management process begins with convincing skeptical workers that giving up their private officesa status symbol of success and achievementwill be good for them and the company.

"By bringing HR into the discussion, we find ways of looking at space differently," says Wheeler. "They bring a more humanistic approach to it. They have a different point of view of what makes people happy or satisfied."

Once the HR staff meets with employees to identify important issues, designers have a better understanding of what they will need to provide to replace the status of an office, such as better computers or other technology, or more team space. "It's a trade-off," Wheeler says. "There has to be an identifiable give-and-take. If employees are willing to try something new, we make sure we provide other things that reward them in other areas, so they want to do this, as opposed to being forced to do this."

That sensitivity to employee concerns played a critical role in 1996 when Owens Corning moved 1,200 employees from its 28-story tower in Toledo to a new, three-story building down the street. The move served as the impetus for the company to flatten its organizational structure, create a new work culture and improve customer service. The new building uses the boulevard concept by allotting its atrium as team space.

Making sure the changeover was successful fell to the HR department, which developed the change-management strategy, organized teams to include members of each department, surveyed employees, and helped address and ease their concerns while the new building was under construction.

"There became an increasing awareness of the physical structure of a building and how it can modify the way people interact," says Don Levitt, Ph.D., an Owens Corning organizational development consultant, who was then a workplace specialist charged with leading the change-management efforts at the time. "The whole new world of work is really based on knowledge and the speed with which we can share knowledge."

Beginning in February 1996, Owens Corning developed committees around five integral parts of the new culture: improving customer focus; creating ad hoc teams across department boundaries; learning and sharing best practices; eliminating paper in favor of digital files; and embracing technology that allows employees to communicate information throughout the company. The transition team worked from April through September 1996, and each of the nine business units provided a team member for the five committees.

"We wanted to help employees make a cultural transformation to a new way of working before they moved in, so that when they moved, they'd say This is great,'" Levitt says. "(HR) understood the vision and rationale and we could help the company drive the change." The transition team also helped address the fears expressed by about a third of the employees, who thought the new building was too small for all of them and that the company would have to conduct a major downsizing. The new building "held more people," says Levitt. "It was just the way it was laid out."

Training employees to use new spaces

HR's design-related duties don't end when a redesign or move is completed. HR will need to train employees on the ways to work in the new environment and help employees establish new rules or protocols for the workplace.

"You can't take people and pull them out of the environment they are in now and drop them in without any explanation or protocols," says Eric LeMay, corporate communications director of Callison Architecture in Seattle. "It won't work. A lot of companies say We tried the open office and it didn't work.' It probably didn't work because they didn't set up rules and protocols about how employees should use that space, compared to the old space."

HR issues arise even in companies that preach the open environment creed.

"I've had to coach people about how to address people, as well as things like loud voices and how to deal with interruptions," says Callison's HR Director, Kathleen Maurel.

Resolving issues about noise and privacy are the two major complaints about open environments. At Hewlett-Packard's San Diego facility, placing the finance department in an open environment appeared to be a solid idea, but some staff recently complained about a lack of privacy, Di Prinzio says.

"They always had food out, they were always having group conversations, there was a lot of activity," she says. "The downside was they didn't feel they had any privacy."

While overall square footage in the San Diego site, which is in its second full year of experimenting with design, remained the same, surveys indicate that employees in the pilot programs are more satisfied with their work areas, have more flexibility in their work processes and have been able to do more teaming, Jakubowski says.

The HR staff has helped the site services group conduct its needs-assessment programs and face-to-face interviews to "categorize and quantify" the needs of each business unit, says Jakubowski. Flexibility and mobility were identified as two critical employee needs.

To provide flexibility, virtually all the furniture components can be made mobile: Corner stations that hold computers are on rollers; special wiring allows employees to use their computers and telephones anywhere in the facility, rather than being tied to a specific work station; file cabinets are on rollers; whole bookshelves can be removed; and work station walls are not attached to central cubicle spines, so work areas can be reconfigured quickly. Employees who need privacy can use portable, enclosed work areas.

"We have been searching to find different ways to prepare for the future and not just sit there and wait for change to happen," Jakubowski says. "We need to stay awake in terms of getting out in front and attending to internal customer needs."​

Dominic Bencivenga, a New York-based writer who has been covering HR issues for seven years, has been contributing to HR Magazine for three years.

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