Who moved my desk? Tips to help employees cope with workspace change

Remember the first day of a new class without assigned seats. On that initial day did you pause for a moment to figure out where you most wanted to sit that day, which seat was going to be “yours”? On later days did anyone ever try to sit in “your” seat? Did you slyly seek another seat, possibly pushing someone out of “theirs”? Did you let the trespasser know that they were in the “wrong” spot even though technically the seat didn’t belong to you?

According to one study this tendency to avoid anxiety and choose spaces that align with our goals for the class results in people using just 2.4%-2.7% of the available seating area. Clearly we like “our” seats.

Yet, in the workplace we often don’t get to choose our seats. More often than not a seat is assigned to us and we settle into the spot — setting up pictures or plants, organizing our drawers and cabinets just the way we like them. We settle into “our” space even though it technically belongs to someone else (our employers) who might make us move at a moment’s notice.

There are multiple articles in Forbes, Fortune and the Washington Post talking about the workplaces of the future, open vs. closed offices and the effect on employees. Opinions vary but most articles speak in sweeping terms of particular office styles being good or bad.

It’s the rare piece that acknowledges that getting people to switch seats is an exercise in change management. However, even those more nuanced pieces don’t tell you how to manage that kind of change. So to move from sweeping opinions to real action I spoke with some researchers from the University of Queensland who study the relationship between open-plan offices, emotion, and conflict at work. They noted that:

“Employees can develop emotional attachments to the physical places where they work and people who they work with. When organizations make changes to workspaces, such as during renovations or when moving to a new site, employee attachments to these places can be disrupted. As a result, employees can experience a loss of identity, lowered productivity and a decline in well-being.”

They outlined the following tips to help managers reduce the negative impacts of changing workspaces.

  1. Acknowledge employees’ emotional attachments to their workspace. Managers often underestimate the very real feelings of attachment that employees have to their workspace, because employees who are lower in the organizational hierarchy tend to experience stronger attachments than those who are higher up. In addition, the longer an employee has been working in a space, the more likely they are to have developed strong attachments.
  2. Find out why employees value their existing workspace. Sometimes the things that employees value about their workspace are surprising, so it is important to find out what they are. In one example, an employee was frustrated that his morning coffee routine was disrupted by a relocation. Though a seemingly frivolous reason, his frustration was no less real. The solution of providing coffee in the new location was simple and inexpensive and demonstrated that the organization cared about the impact of relocations. Even if the solution isn’t so simple, just letting employees voice their frustration in a constructive manner can help settle frazzled nerves. A mix of short surveys or focus groups will key employees can help you identify and prioritize your employee’s interests in the move.
  3. Integrate valued aspects of the old workspace into the new workspace. Include employees in decision-making about the new workspace to ensure that the workspace is functional, reflects employee needs, and is a space where employees can be productive. Do employees need to keep their conference room for team meetings? Are they more willing to move if they still have light or a reasonable commute? Employees don’t just choose an employer based on the job but also where they get to do that job and how well it fits in their lives. Make sure the new place fits at least as well as the old workplace did.
  4. Help employees anticipate moving to the new workspace. This could involve allowing employees to visit the new workspace, providing new workspace training, or helping employees practice commuting to the new workspace. The better they can envision their future in the new workspace the easier it will be for them to adapt to it.
  5. Help employees loosen connections to their old workspace. Employees may wish to organize an event, such as a brunch or party, to mark the move away from the old workspace. Giving them a chance to reflect on how things were and frame the new order in a positive light will reduce any “the old place was better” whining. Employees should also be encouraged to inform their stakeholders about the move and pass on new contact details.
  6. Help employees develop attachments to the new workspace. Allow employees to bring furniture from their old workspace and to personalize their new workspace so that they feel comfortable. This is especially important for employees using specialized furniture or office setups to support their well-being or productivity.
  7. Reinforce behavior associated with the new workspace. If the workspace change was intended to bring about a broader organizational change (e.g. break down communication barriers between teams), managers need to actively foster this change (e.g. encourage communication between teams and emphasize an organizational-identity rather than a team-identity). For example, if you wanted more collaboration in an open office, managers will need to regularly pull people together in the meeting spaces or suggest informal meetings to remind people that the new space means new behaviors.
  8. Emphasize the positive aspects of the new workspace. Like other forms of organizational change, workspace change can be hard. Reminding employees about the reason for the change can make it easier for them to appreciate the benefits of the new space.

Though it may be tempting to frame organizational changes as being all good or bad, in the end it’s the little details about how a change is implemented that make it a success or failure. Taking the time to collaborate with employees about what kind of space will make them more productive, and acknowledging their emotional attachments to their workspaces, will open the door to greater success.

My thanks to Gemma Irving, Momo Kromah, Dr. Oluremi Ayoko, and Professor Neal Ashkanasy of the University of Queensland for their collected wisdom.

Follow Dr. Kenneth Matos on Twitter (@DrKenMatos) Linkedin and at Lifemeetswork.com