Why your workplace should embrace a choice-driven strategy

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Lamar Johnson Collaborative Managing Director Angie Earlywine talks about how options in the workplace can help build a more productive and satisfying employee experience.

Who doesn’t want to have their say? Whether it’s as simple as a waiter asking us how we want our steak prepared or as challenging as deciding what city we want to live in—we want our voices heard. We want to know that our opinions matter and that we have control over decisions in our lives.

The workplace is no different. We’ve all had those jobs where a supervisor has told us it’s their way or the highway. It’s the same old story: people never stick around for long, and the high turnover causes problems for the organization down the line. Angie Earlywine, Managing Director at Lamar Johnson Collaborative, is looking to change that narrative by empowering employees and creating better workplaces for all her clients at the Chicago-headquartered architecture and design practice. 

Office Design Trends

People are obviously at the core of every workplace. How do you build a workplace to ensure that employees get their say when it comes to the work style that is most conducive to them?

Earlywine: Twenty years ago, it was not as acceptable as it is today to engage employees in workplace design decisions. With today’s workplace planning, leaders often find that “you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t”—so you might as well ask questions and see what people have on their mind. 

When you’re doing a workplace survey, which I believe should go to all staff, employees should be asked things like, what’s working well today that they would like to see continue, what is not working well and could be improved upon, and what is missing altogether that would make a real difference in their workday. Even if you focus on those three areas, it’s amazing how reasonable people are about what they request. There’s this fear that typically comes from leadership that people are going to ask for things that the company can’t afford or implement. 

I think we’ve come a long way, and people are getting better at giving authentic answers. We don’t see ridiculous requests like a corner office with a bar and hot tub on the deck anymore. We do thousands of surveys every year for various clients, and we’re continually impressed at how humble some of the requests are. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting the windows washed in a building so that people can have better daylight. Others might ask for more fruit in the cafeteria. They’re asking for things that are better for their well-being and productivity. 

I always tell leaders that they would be surprised how much low-hanging fruit there is in terms of workplace options that are either low cost or no cost that you can easily implement and get a big win from employees.

office window washer

You mentioned that fear, which can trickle down from leadership, and another area that seems to be affected by it is workplace performance. How do you balance that alongside employee satisfaction?

Earlywine: My big thing is that satisfaction can only be achieved exponentially when you increase choice. That’s because we’re in a customized, “I want my Starbucks coffee at 98 degrees with two inches of foam and soy milk on top of almond milk” kind of culture. 

We’re in a customization culture and the workplace is no different. I always tell leaders that they’re not going to make a one-size-fits-all space. I say one-size-fits-none. It’s more about the degree of choice.

Your workplace should have a minimum of ten work settings to choose from, and it’s easier to achieve than you think.

It has more to do with technology than it does with furniture or physical space. If you have a laptop or mobility-enabling technology, you can work from anywhere within the building. To get to that magic minimum of ten work settings, you can work in a cafe, huddle room, focus booth, traditional desk, and so on. You might be doing employee reviews all day, so you need to use a shared office for privacy to support the private conversation you’re having when mentoring someone. When we work on projects, we make sure the outdoor space also has things like power outlets and adequate lighting so people can work outside.

Imagine if you started getting even more creative, and you provided a quiet zone or a wellness space. These are all spaces where work can happen. We have to remove the stigma that you’re not working unless you’re at your desk.

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In a previous interview, you said that one of the most common questions you get asked is what a best practices workplace looks like and how businesses can get on a best workplace list. What are some of the most important elements that these kinds of workplaces share?

Earlywine: When you start to see trends where individual companies begin to look like other companies, I feel like that’s taking an approach and applying it to another organization without really getting into whether that’s the right application for that company’s employee base and their unique nature of work. 

I would say the best workplace trends will always be those that make people feel energized while doing their work, they want to speed to work every day, they have the best tools and space types to thrive, and want to be in that work environment—that’s a success. That can vary from company to company and department to department. When we do HQ projects, for example, the HR floor might look very different from the web development floor, which works in a very different fashion. Even within a company, there are micro versions of the workplace strategy that have to manifest to support the nature of work for a particular group. 

When you start to generalize and say everyone gets something, you’re getting nothing out of that. You might get density or a higher headcount per floor, but you’re going to get dinged for so many other things. You’re going to get slack for the acoustic issues. You’re going to get slack for providing spaces nobody ever uses. If HR is all about private meetings behind closed doors and you give everyone open office collaborative spaces—that’s not the right collaboration strategy for that particular user group. Areas that are fit for purpose have to be the focus.

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What kind of technology needs to be implemented and adopted to help create an outstanding employee experience and propel an organization onto a “best places to work” list?

Earlywine: It’s great when you can bring technology into communicating a company’s story from the minute you walk into their facility. I think about some of our clients that are curing cancer, developing products that are saving lives, and other great missions. You can use technology to communicate those messages and stories. When people feel connected to the mission and the purpose, they’re that much more engaged in the work they do. They want to be there and contribute to the bigger picture in a meaningful way. They know what their time and energy is going towards.

Technology is often overlooked in larger spaces like a lobby or cafe. Sometimes I’ll see HGTV playing on one monitor, which is fine, but there can be more than one monitor. You might have one communication technology platform that’s showcasing the brand, message, purpose, and any exciting things happening with the organization. Another monitor might be playing CNN, FOX, or HGTV to give your mind a break from work. The digital experience in community spaces is critical.

I also think the more we can take the complexity out of meetings and getting them started with one click, the better off we’d be. A lot of technology platforms are claiming to be one touch when it’s more like seven touches, plus a call to IT.  Let’s say you take 15 minutes of every meeting and times that by the average salary for a company, it will likely more than pay for the investment you need to fix technology problems, but yet, those calculations aren’t often run. It’s a missed opportunity. Meetings could be shorter and more effective, but I think you could truly increase productivity just by getting those 15 minutes back with more seamless technology.

Desk Booking Online Guide

We often have these complex reservation systems with a kiosk outside the door that lights up red when in use and green when it’s vacant, but we’re not good at running data from these tools. There are other add-on packages to these features and I don’t feel like we’re leveraging enough. If we were able to harvest the data coming from these reservation systems, you could get predictive analytics on the types of rooms that are used most, and you might even be able to forecast why and make changes accordingly.

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The physical workplace has changed so much over the years and it continues to evolve, especially with the advent of agile and remote working. What are some of the biggest changes physical workplaces have had to make?

Earlywine: I like to compare the college experience to what we can learn about working in an office environment. Everybody remembers going to college and feeling somewhat liberated because you can choose your classes, where to study, and the social places you will go. Then you get to corporate America and you’re told “you’re going to get here at eight and leave at five—here’s your desk for the next eight hours. Good luck.” No wonder we have people wondering what happened between college and the workplace.

When you look at the typical day of someone in college and what makes the experience a positive one, it’s the connection to other people, moving around all day, choice in what you’re doing, and the fact that professors give you autonomy. It might sound like an unrelated analogy, but it makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

When we get into a corporate environment, we revert backwards. Instead of continuing to liberate people and trusting that work is happening regardless of where you are, we put all these rules, regulations, and requirements on people because there is fear that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It would be nice if we could get to a place where most managers trusted first and only dealt with outliers if needed.

The pendulum has not swung far enough yet on that. Some of the most progressive companies have been thought leaders in allowing more freedom or flexibility, whether you’re working at home or in the office. The notion that you have to be physically together to be most productive and solve problems has been resolved in many cases, by technology.

Find out more about how Angie and Lamar Johnson Collaborative can help your organization with its workplace strategy on their website.

What options would you like to see implemented in your workplace to create a truly memorable employee experience? Join the conversation and leave us a comment below.

Photos: Nathan Cowley, StartupStockPhotos, CoWomen, Product School