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Survey Says: Employee Feedback Vital for Open Office Project

by Alison Jones / December 15, 2016



So, the decision has been made. You’re going to embark on a space transition project that is destined to change the face of your organization, promote collaboration and creativity, and save substantial rent dollars over the coming years. A concept sketch has been drafted, and it’s a beauty. Wide open spaces, cozy areas for brainstorming – even leather benches that double as storage. Who wouldn’t love it?

You almost float into the meeting to present your idea to upper management. You finish your presentation, lean back in your chair, and ask for questions. You imagine they will want to discuss how the architect will be selected, or possibly project funding. Blue walls or yellow?

However, you did not expect what comes next, from the most senior member of the team: “How will we gather data? How will we measure success?” This is NOT the response you had in mind! They don’t want to talk about the brilliant design. Instead, they want to talk about data-gathering! The answer to the question is surveys. Yes, surveys must go out. But surveys are not mandatory for space planning… or are they?

While some may view surveys as optional in space planning, surveys are actually an essential step for any space transition project. Done properly, these and other data-gathering techniques form the foundation for success by ensuring that the design not only meets expectations and requirements but has a greater chance of being accepted by both employees and managers. Surveys can be used to gather valuable information on employee satisfaction, productivity, and job requirements. Because surveys provide quantitative results and can be strictly anonymous, the findings can be used in a number of ways to help fine-tune project goals and to set benchmarks for project success. Let’s take a look at some of the key goals – and benefits – of surveys.

Setting Space Transition Project Goals

You already have some basic goals in mind for the space transition project: increase the number of collaborative spaces, tear down walls, install shared workstations. Along with utilization studies and the architectural programming effort, surveys can help zero in on the number and type of collaborative spaces that may be needed, as well as other special requirements that should be considered. Using the survey to learn more about current operations and existing barriers to productivity can provide valuable information for fine-tuning space requirements, or the “must haves,” in the new project.

The survey can also be used to gather input on the “nice to haves.” Perhaps employees would like more natural daylight. Some may wish for a more comfortable lounge area, or a phone booth to make private calls. A few years ago, I toured an office on the 6th floor of a high-rise building, where an outdoor landscaped terrace with tables and chairs had been created on an exposed area of the 5th floor roof that was previously unused. This area could be used to work or take breaks outdoors, and was designed in direct response to feedback from employees who stated that they often felt “cooped up.”

While not all items on a wish list can be accommodated (and certainly not every organization is able to include such items as outdoor terraces or similar office “luxuries”), the survey can highlight common themes among employees. And once these themes are identified, it may be possible to design the new space with some of these wishes in mind. But the important point is that you won’t know what your employees like unless you ask.

Identifying Concerns and Promoting Buy-in

Any type of change – no matter how positive – can trigger fear and resistance. The survey can be used to identify the concerns employees may have about moving to a new environment. Employees may be concerned about losing privacy or dealing with a greater number of distractions. Some may worry about giving up a dedicated space, such as a private office or designated cubicle. Others may worry about new technologies and whether they have the right skills to adapt to the new environment. Through the survey, common themes can be identified so that management can respond as part of an ongoing communications strategy about the workplace transition program.

In many cases, being provided with a forum to express concerns goes a long way in helping to alleviate these concerns. In short, simply being asked often helps to build trust and foster acceptance. This is just basic human nature. If individuals aren’t formally asked to provide their opinions, they may complain to each other in the hallways or over coffee in the breakroom (which could fuel a potentially divisive situation), or they may just suffer in silence while agonizing over the changes.

As alluded to above, any space transition must have a communications strategy in place to inform employees of key aspects of the project (timing, employee responsibilities, new policies, etc.). The communications strategy is also a key opportunity to address employee concerns and to keep employees engaged in the process so that the transition will be as smooth as possible. But it’s important to remember that the communications must be a two-way street. And a survey is often the first opportunity employees have to formally voice their opinions and concerns.

When carefully designed, surveys provide a wealth of information to help guide a space transition project. Once survey results are gathered and tabulated, key areas can be identified and studied. For example, if the survey results show that employees fear that the new office environment will be full of distractions, this concern can be explored in focus groups and other employee forums. Potential solutions can then be identified. When employees are drawn into the process, they are more likely to be part of the solution. All of this leads to a greater level of buy-in, and ideally, a more informed space transition project.

Measuring Project Success

Finally, surveys can be a key component in measuring the success of a space transition project. While other objective measures, such as rent savings and increased productivity, can also be used, the survey provides a snapshot of key measures that can’t be gleaned from other sources.

To be most effective, the survey should be administered both before and after the project is implemented. The “before” state provides a baseline to show how employees rate their existing (i.e., pre-project) space, as well as their satisfaction with various aspects of the work environment. The data gathered can also include commuting time and costs, as well as miles traveled to/from work, to establish a baseline that can then be compared to the “after” state (i.e., post-occupancy). The hope is that the results of the survey will be more favorable post-occupancy, indicating that the project succeeded in meeting its goals.

However, it is likely that not every aspect of the space transition project will be a roaring success right away. There are almost always areas that need to be tweaked. Perhaps there are too many small conference rooms and not enough larger meeting spaces. Maybe people are congregating in a hallway next to a focus area. Perhaps the wi-fi is spotty in areas or another key technology component is lacking. Common threads are often discovered via surveys, and provide lessons learned for the future and an opportunity to devise creative solutions to address these concerns – before employees take matters into their own hands and start draping wires around desks or creating their own makeshift partitions to block distractions.

A Roadmap for Success

Survey creation is an art that requires some know-how (to be discussed in a future post), but don’t plan on skipping past this important data-gathering step. Nowadays, surveys can be done online, which dramatically reduces the cost and time involved and makes it even easier to obtain important feedback. Most importantly, though, surveys are a critical step in developing a road map for any space transition project.

As the Cheshire Cat told Alice in Wonderland, in so many words, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Surveys help provide a much clearer idea of your destination so you can develop a plan to get there without too many detours. The discussion about wall color can wait. After all, if you survey your employees first, you may find out that you need fewer walls than you first thought… and that they actually prefer yellow!

Tags: Open Office Design

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Alison Jones

Alison Jones

Alison is a senior consultant with a master’s degree in organizational/industrial psychology and a certification in change management and coaching. She enjoys reading, fitness, travel, and the beach.