Graham Constable looks at how to do (or not to do) activity-based working in his entertaining workplace series.
Marcus listened to Harry recount his meeting with one of his key team members. Marcus knew the meeting was going to test Harry’s skills given the level of dissatisfaction previously voiced by his team.
“I remembered your advice about encouraging Charlie to reflect on how he felt but, really, I thought I was in for a real pasting.”
“He gave no quarter!”
“How did you go with that?”
“Once over the shock, I found myself appreciating his honesty and his courage. Your advice prepared me well. I quickly realised where he was coming from. He was lucid and directed as I went through your focused conversation outline. I have a good set of notes of our discussion.”
“Excellent Harry. What’s next?”
“I promised Charlie a transcript and we’ll have a follow-up engagement with the whole team to discuss the feedback and develop with them an action plan.”
“Very good; ‘engage’ is good language to use.”
“Thanks Marcus. Right, can we talk about my client’s restructure? Could do with your wisdom.”
“Sure.” Marcus dug out his reference notes and a few case studies on change.
He then let Harry take his time to reflect on his client’s restructure.
As Marcus listened he picked out various challenges both Harry and his client would need to address.
Harry finished off: “I’m wondering how to tell my client boss the consultant he’s appointed seems to want to solve world hunger with his workplace designs.”
“You still have regular meetings with him?” Marcus prompted.
“Yeah I do – he never misses one. He’s pretty focused on this restructure.”
“So introduce your concerns to him next time.”
Harry paused. “To be honest I’m wondering if I’m making a mountain out of a molehill myself!”
“Do you want to share?” Marcus queried.
Harry gathered his thoughts. “As you know my boss wants his staff to work better together to remove what he sees as unnecessary duplication. He’s now saying he also wants to see more creativity and innovation in the team.”
“OK. What does he mean by duplication and where is this occurring?”
“In the last 12 months the company has been recruiting – ever since it started marketing its new brand. The company has recaptured lost market share – you know ‘we’re in the jewellery business now’.”
“I remember. Go on.”
“He’s been quite open with me about his challenges, Marcus.”
“That’s a good thing, believe me.”
“I know! Anyway he thinks last year’s growth hasn’t been very efficient. He sees a number of departments working with separate systems and doing similar things differently. I guess this is where he sees the duplication.”
Marcus nodded. “How is the consultant helping remove this duplication?”
“His intention is to design a new workspace to force everyone to collaborate and be creative. My client boss meantime has asked all the heads of departments to come up with one common system to work to. He knows this will reveal quite a number of positions and roles that can be removed because of duplication. He’s set some tough profitability targets for his heads and wants to see how they achieve this.”
“An interesting strategy. I can see where he’s coming from.”
“This is what he sees as ‘essential problem solving’. Once he’s removed the duplication then he’ll focus on getting his staff to be more innovative.”
“And has he defined what he wants from all this innovation?”
“No, I’ve not asked him yet.”
“Right, tell me what the consultant is up to.” “I’ve been in all their planning sessions.
They’re redesigning the office to accommodate activities they believe will encourage innovation.”
“Mmmm – ABW.”
“Yeah – activity-based working. I’m learning quickly about all this new stuff.”
“Knowing your client’s business, are you helping with the design?”
Harry hesitated. “I am, but I seem to be a small voice on the team.”
“You’re on the Project Control Group, yes?”
“I am.” Harry changed tack. “Most of the people I speak to within the company are dreading the change. This is what I need your advice on – dealing with this change.”
Marcus was tactful. “As I see it change is happening across multiple fronts here. But first, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of supporting victimhood, Harry.”
“Bear with me. A lot of companies have invested heavily in ABW in the hope of generating higher productivity and creating an innovative workforce. As far as I can tell the jury is still out on how well this works. Some enjoy ABW; others dislike it intensely.
The added problem is the scarcity of empirical evidence on the ‘before and after’. Comprehensive measurement is rarely done.”
“Really?” Harry asked.
“There’s a whole raft of psychology at play here and designing a workspace without understanding all this could be an expensive exercise.”
“What should I do then Marcus? I’m no psychologist.”
“First, your client’s organisation is going to change – it must if it is to sustain its growth. So you are right to support your client’s objective. As I once read: ‘Ride the horse in the direction that it’s going!’ As far as the consultant’s approach, you may not like the options being proffered but you have a big say in how the company will be impacted.”
“Sure you do. Your client boss selected you!” Marcus let that sink in. “I’ll give you some case studies that in my view describe how best to and how not to do ABW. Read them and share them with your client. Agree some actions with him if you can and then discuss these with the consultant. Whatever your client decides though, run with them.”
“Even knowing people in the company will resist?”
“Harry, you need to decide – when the time comes – if you are in a position to control the situation. You may need to accept what you can’t change.”
“How is that managing change?”
“Hear me out. When your client talks of ‘essential problem solving’ be careful in what you use as evidence to decide how much he cares about people. Testing them may well prove his heart is in the right place – all things considered.”
Harry looked confused.
“His goal is to have an organisation that is alive and thriving, that pays people and generates returns.”
“Absolutely. So be his change agent, Harry.”
“Ever see yourself as being a host?”
“A moderator, a facilitator, a keeper, an entertainer? Take your pick?”
Marcus grinned. “Your job is to enable the client’s business goals, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“So, change is here to stay and you must help facilitate this change. You understand your client’s business and its people. Examine people’s work routines, how they work and how all this change may be making them feel out of step. Then help them alter. Put people in touch with others that have solved their change issues. Moderate their responses – use the ‘focused conversation’ approach you’ve learned. Get people to properly examine what is going on. Help them build bridges across the organisation. Help them use the technology you’re being paid to introduce.”
“Wow – I thought I was just a facility manager.”
“You’re a businessman Harry – helping your client run his business. Organisations need information, so remember the plan that your client boss has will evolve over time. He will need information to help make correct decisions, so feed him with your observations. You don’t have to break confidences, but you need to give him feedback on what you’re learning.”
“Where do I start?”
“You already have with your own team. Lead the change Harry and encourage your team to help. Support the people in the company to discover what is in their group and to make use of collective intelligence so they can do their jobs effectively. Don’t forget the physical environment either – it’s important. If you’re brave you could invite suggestions on improving this side of things by posting questions on the walls of the new collaborative spaces. Entertain people occasionally – organise small interruptions if you think people are not communicating. Get them talking.”
“I’m not sure about the entertaining thing, Marcus.”
“Fair enough – perhaps an extreme example, but the principle is to get people interacting, sharing ideas and thoughts. After all your client boss wants innovation and collaboration.”
“Tell me Marcus – have you done this kind of thing before?”
“All the time. Helped me change!”
“I’d like to have seen that!”
“You can see it in yourself Harry if you want.
More fun that way!” Marcus stretched. “Just remember. What’s necessary now is to make the changes work. Keep reminding people they are inventing the future, not redesigning the past. Help remind everyone that by working in the company then the change plan is as much theirs as it is your boss’.”
You can follow Marcus and Harry’s journey through the Connections column in each issue of FM.
This article is part of Graham Constable’s regular column ‘Connections’, published in Facility Management magazine.