Why is workplace change so slow?

Aug 10 2005 by John Blackwell Print This Article

The slow pace of change in how we plan, design, and manage our workplace stems from managers still believing that:

  • Employees have to be constantly supervised!
  • Advances up the organisational hierarchy must be marked with more territorial space and better furniture!
  • Departments and functions should be kept separated!
  • Quasi-monopolies should control information flow!
  • 'Presenteeism' is better than 'absenteeism'!
  • Home and work are two irreconcilable worlds; commuting is the natural state of humanity!

We all live in the twenty-first century, but many organisations continue to inhabit a nineteenth-century mind-set about work and the workplace.

Despite shattering advances in technology and our attitude about family, work, and society, these older and often un-stated values lurk just beneath the surface of organisational life.

Like a sunken wreck that gouges holes in the hulls of unsuspecting passing ships, these antiquated and trite values retard progress. In Peter Duffy's words:

"In the age of the Internet, at the dawn of the knowledge-based society, it is strange that we tolerate buildings . . . that assume that everyone comes in at nine and leaves at five, and sits solidly at a desk for five days a week. The model, of course, is still the factory where supervisors had to put enormous emphasis on synchrony to force a barely literate proletariat to work at the loom and the lathe. When the bell rings, the work begins. When the siren blows it is over - for the day . . . rolling out formulaic solutions has become the norm in office design".

Rolling out formulaic solutions has become the norm in office design
Organisational leaders with a nineteenth-century mind-set contribute to dulling the advance of new, healthier, more engaging, and increasingly mobile, agile ways of working.

There is disparity, however, among what is technically possible with modern telecommunications, what people care about, what makes them effective in doing their work, and what motivates downright resistance to change of any sort.

We need to separate surface from substratum if we want to identify what fails because it fundamentally undermines the ability to work productively (in which case failure serves a valuable purpose) and what generates resistance because it challenges the familiar. What wins out over time is whatever demonstrably works better than what came before it.

In a global economy, scan the globe. In a global economy, lessons about what works better can come from anywhere.

Long before office planners around the rest of the world realised the advantages of 'universal plan' (same-size) offices for managing employee churn, Swedish employers gave the same-sized office to virtually every employee.

They did it by inventing what they called the 'combi-office'. To gain the quiet of a closed office and the high visibility and transparency associated with an open office, the 'combi-office' combined a standard-size cellular (closed) office of about nine square metres with a sliding glass door.

It was not because of research demonstrating that sitting in an office with real walls, near an operable window and natural daylight, or having beautifully designed furniture, increased productivity a few percentage points that caused Swedish employers to act. The idea that every aspect of the environment must be justified by direct utility or efficiency is peculiarly American. Rather, the Swedish did it because offering a beautiful, comfortable office was considered the right (decent) thing to do in a society that values the dignity of its employees.

I can still remember my total surprise and astonishment at the first time a Nordic executive wondered aloud why I would even question the practice of assigning a secretary the same space as an engineer or human resource manager.

"Don't they all contribute to the organisation's success?" he asked. If they did, why would you give anyone a demonstrably lower-quality working environment for no reason other than to distinguish rank and status?

"Wouldn't this undermine their morale and commitment to the organisation?" he persisted.

Swedish offices succeed at many levels. We've adopted them in the form of the universal plan office because they use space efficiently. The same-size office reduces the cost of churn because it's easy to move people in, out, and around the organisation rather than move walls or panels to accommodate these changes over time.

Small but uniformly sized offices distribute space more evenly across the organisational hierarchy than the space-by-rank approach, which can easily result in something like 40 percent of the employees occupying 60 percent of the space.

An added bonus of the more egalitarian approach is the environmental message that the corporate leadership considers everyone in the organisation valuable, not just its higher-level managers.

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.