Humans naturally don’t like change. We get anxious and even distressed when confronted with a new situation. This doesn’t only affect our personal lives; it impacts the way we work as well. Companies are learning this lesson the hard way. As many companies change their office policy, they tend to get pushback from employees, even if the change is eventually appreciated. So companies that have made large changes to the way that they use an office are embracing the principles that have been a staple of the human resource industry since the 1990s, a school of thought called change management.
Change management is a people-centric concept that finds ways to help humans manage change. When it comes to a new workspace, change management is all about executing a smooth transition for employees from one environment to another. It may seem like presenting employees with a re-envisioned office space featuring all the bells and whistles designed to provide them with a desirable place to be productive wouldn’t require much more than a tour. But just saying “voilà” and presenting workers with a new environment is just the beginning. “You can sink or swim on the success of a project whether you do a successful change management or not,” said Mahesh Vidyasagar, global vice president of Enterprise Real Estate and Workplace with talent solutions and business consulting firm Robert Half Inc. “If you don’t give them the right tools with which to adapt and execute to a new design, new format, to the hybrid environment, it could really affect how they perform.”
The right tools for employees in a redesigned workspace boil down to the rules they will need to follow. If employees are going from a workspace where everyone had a designated office or desk to a redesigned space featuring app-powered reservable desks and office space, bookable meeting rooms, and the like, they are going to need guidance on how to navigate this new environment because it is completely unfamiliar. So, a change management strategy where employees are guided on how to adapt to what is a novel workspace for them is essential. The approach that Robert Half often uses involves first establishing a steering committee of senior executives that will support a change management proposal and then putting together a group of people who will embody the change and serve as the go-to resource for employees on how to manage the particulars of the new space.
Change management for office redesigns isn’t as simple as following a to-do list. Even the most well-thought-out strategies can have hiccups, like high-ranking employees who may not be so keen on relinquishing an office that they equate with their status in the company for a bookable desk. Imagine an attorney who spent years clocking tons of billable hours to land the office with a view, only to be left without a dedicated space. “A person may intuit losing a desk or an office as being slighted or not having confirmation of his or her position in the hierarchy,” Vidyasagar explained. “So a good change management strategy will help that person thrive in a new environment and ensure that that person feels like they are a cornerstone of the hierarchy of the organization despite the fact that they don’t have a corner office.” Some demographics are less inclined to embrace redesign. Vidyasagar has found that millennials and the younger Gen Z crowd are quick to adapt, but Baby Boomers and some Gen-Xers don’t respond as well to change, so being open to one-on-one guidance or handholding some workers is part of an effective change management strategy.
Not only is it essential to be in tune with the various worker demographics, from new grads on up, when planning a change management strategy, but it is also essential to take into account geographical differences. As Vidyasagar noted, the East Coast is very different than the West Coast regarding work culture and the significance of an office workplace. Strategies have to be tailored by industry type as well. An actionable change management strategy for a tech firm in Silicon Valley will vary wildly from a strategy for a financial company in Midtown Manhattan. Salesforce’s San Francisco office, for example, features a wall-size version of the old-school Pacman video game, something that wouldn’t be found at the office of a Manhattan accounting firm. “Whatever it is that you’re trying to do, you have to have a robust change management communication strategy,” Vidyasagar said. “Change management is what you’re doing, and then there’s the communication, which is how you’re doing it and communicating it, to get it right, you have to communicate, perhaps even over-communicate.”
CBRE is one company that appears to have gotten it right with integrating employees into a new workplace. CBRE relied on the same change management services it offers its real estate clients when opening its new tech-enabled office at the 40-acre UnCommons mixed-use development in Las Vegas. The firm commenced the change management process 18 months ahead of the move-in date, acting through its Workplace360 Steering Committee to engage in purposeful communications with employees. “Change is hard. Having many open discussions throughout the project lifecycle ensures people’s opinions or concerns are heard,” said Peter Van Emburgh, global head of real estate at CBRE. “Having the steering committee is instrumental in soliciting local input and ensuring the office design is people-first, with functionality being paramount to its success.”
CBRE’s achievements in acclimating employees to a completely new office environment speak to what Vidyasagar describes as perhaps the lynchpin in an effective change management strategy, “You want to make sure that you just get the buy-in from the top leadership; otherwise, it’s just not going to work,” he said. “If you have a senior person who rejects the strategy, then you will have a lot of people who will follow that influential senior person.”
Change management in office redesign is only going to become more vital in the workplace as businesses change their office spaces to accommodate the hybrid work schedule and ever-emerging new technologies. For many employees, a new and unknown environment can make them feel like a fish out of water, which will do little to entice them back into the office and promote productivity. Facilitating a smooth transition from office accommodations that employees had grown accustomed to pre-pandemic to the unfamiliar world of a new office structure is mandatory, and change management strategies can be key to making it all work.