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How you could change your office culture in one day, and why you will never do it

Do you want to know how you can change your office culture in a single day?

Blow it up
That’s right, blow it up. Have everyone come in jeans and t-shirts and break out the power tools and tear the walls down.
Why you never would
Your gut reaction tells you that you can’t. You think things like “but there are rules” or “you can’t just do that” but the fact of the matter is, that is your problem.
If you are serious about changing the culture of your workplace, if you are serious about accelerating the pace of change, you don’t fear this exercise, you see its enormous potential.

If you are serious you don’t see an empty space that flattens the room and exposes your weaknesses (nose picker!); you see a blank slate, an empty canvass, an opportunity to reframe the physical space you work in into something that supports the culture you long for.

Build it together
Can you imagine the impact on the work culture if you rebuilt the space together? Have you ever taken part in a team building exercise that was as dramatic, as important, or as humanizing?

The Hold Outs
There will always be people who want bigger walls, thicker doors, and better black out shades, but they will become increasingly irrelevant as the artificial gap between the supply and demand of information and services closes within your organization.
I’m not saying that we won’t need spaces for private meetings or undisruptive phone calls, closed spaces will always be needed. Closed people on the other hand, are a different matter altogether.

Need a more modest place to start?
Distribute a blank template of the floor plan to your team and ask them to reorganize the office how they want to see it. Encourage them to be creative and whacky, but also functional and thoughtful. Then organize a luncheon and have everyone pitch their ideas pecha kucha style over lunch and see if you can pull together a blueprint that people can agree on and roll from there.
this was originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca


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Stephen Peteritas

This post has inspired me to put up walls at GovLoop home offices and break the nerf guns. Not really, but I do think Charney should have his own reality show much like kitchen nightmares where you come in and just completely turn the place… jeans and blazer is the perfect style for it.

Nicholas Charney

First, I awesome’d my own post, that’s allowed right?

Second, maybe I could do a made for web TV special in partnership w/Govloop.

Draft title:

“From Sad Bureaucratic Faces to Awesome Public Servants Spaces” hosted by Steve Ressler and Nick Charney, produced by Stephen Peteritas and Megan Price, sponsored by Govloop and GovDelivery.

We should talk to Scott about this … ASAP!

Jay Johnson

I’m seeing Nick with a megaphone (Ty Pennington style) saying, “Loosen up people, prepare for some awesomeness!” Oh, and a Sawzall. 🙂

Bill Brantley

This would not create sustained change. Yes, I have been in team-building sessions where you had a promising start to major change but after a few days, the old habits return. And while you are blowing up the office, how does the daily work get done? You are also assuming that it is the system or certain people that are holding back the promise of the perfect workplace.

The biggest issue that I have with throwing hand grenades at a problem is that not everyone agrees on what the problem actually is and if just tossing out everything we do and have learned before is the best way to solve the problem. My biggest issue is where is the voice of the people that we are serving? How do they participate in this violent cultural change method?

Andrew Krzmarzick

P.S. I just want them to “Tear Down Those Walls.” Period. Don’t rebuild them. Let us work from anywhere. Get to know our neighbors again. Spend more time with our families and less with fellow commuters. That would improve “office” morale more than anything. 🙂

Lorne W. Neff

Funny this came up. We just got new office cubicles this week. As soon as they put them in, I turned my cubicle to create more space and so I didn’t have to sit facing the wall with my back to everyone (I hate that). I also kept my old comfy chair. One of my bosses was not happy. I got a “talking to” about office uniformity and creating a professional environment. Talk about impossible….

Nicholas Charney

Thanks for the comments all.

@Bill – I disagree, but I also don’t think I could address your objections adequately in a comment, I might blog more oni this later.

cheers

MatrixIP

Nic

Luv the post. (perhaps not the “Blow it up”)

Perhaps we could use the term “Knock it down”.

I would like to bring to your attention a favourite city of mine that has been “knocked down” by nature.

Christchurch New Zealand was flattened on 22 Feb 2011. (a natural disaster) but there is a movement to “Rebuild Christchurch”. There are some wonderful ideas, take for example;

http://rebuildchristchurch.bonfireapp.com/ideas/view/14/christchurch_can_look_to_inner_precincts_of_european_cities_that_really_work_for_inner_city_development

Your post could be inspirational and see more global interest and more ideas flowing to “Rebuild Christchurch”.

Hope you and your friends can take some time out to have a look and enter the fray!

Bill Brantley

@Nick – when you do address my objections in your blog posting try to include three examples where cultural change occurred in a single day and lasted past six months.

Dannielle Blumenthal

I agree with Bill that this is not really how culture change happens or should happen. Also stuff like “blow this up” is irresponsible (agree with MatrixIP). But the frustration is valuable feedback. Either we will change incrementally but rapidly or we will have more crises like government shutdowns. Need to leverage the energy of new gov employees to make positive change happen.

Peter Sperry

As I read the post and comments, I could not help thinking of government organizations such as the FBI, Marine Corps, National Park Service, Coast Guard, Mounties, Congress, Parliament etc with long proud traditions and cultures of dedicated service. Yes sometimes existing cultures need to evolve to reflect new realities but should we really be so anxious to blow things up to facilitate change with no clear understanding of why we are changing or what benefits and/or defects may come with the new culture? It sounds too much like children tearing apart a stuffed animal only to find they cannot reassemble it and a beloved part of their tradition and culture is lost forever. I’m sorry but when I look at the cultures of most government agencies, I see a long line of dedicated men and women stretching back generations to protect, serve, rescue, educate, heal, debate (sometimes acrimoniously but always ultimately nonviolently), govern etc and the idea of just blowing up the history, traditions and cultures that have made these organizations what they are does not appeal to me. Change yes, but with a purpose rather than just an emotion.

john jones

No one in mgmt. wants to give up their offices with doors. Plus, getting rid of an office means they can’t watch you.

Joe Flood

This has been tried before, for example at ad agencies – see this great article in Wired that documents the resistance to the office-less movement. It’s a hilarious, absurdist story with some great lines (“Worst of all, there was no damn place to sit.”)

Coby Leuschke

Can’t disagree with getting rid of cubicles, but I think that’s just a service to humanity in general. However, I would start with firing your bottom 10% and giving your top 10% the day off. And if you have a manager who can not identify said 20% of their people they need to go too.

Carol Davison

Physical barriers are not what is wrong with organizations, and removing a 3′ x 6.5″ block of wood from a passageway doesn’t employ an open door policy. The 45% of Americans that are introverts function best in private offices and cubicles, as do those who are very auditory, and those who are messy who need some sort of “enforced” organization. Let’s remember the platinum rule and treat others as THEY would like to be treated and not force others to perform in ways that are only most comfortable for ourselves. Changing hearts and minds and not physical spaces solves the real problems in an organization.

Nicholas Charney

It’s super interesting to see all the comments on this post; it is safe to say that the room is divided on this one(pun!)?

I’m not going to come back at every comment but do want to follow up on a few; but before I do I think it is important to recognize that we are allowed to disagree on how valuable with think the exercise would or wouldn’t be.

@Andy – that photo needs some photoshopping awesomeness. I nominate Stephen.

@Bill – To be honest I’m perfectly okay with the work not getting done for one day if it means building a better office environment (harder in operational environments). I’m also willing to put in time on a Saturday to do it. Yes, my assumption is that we are being held back by either the people or system, but what else can it be boiled down to? In my mind other elements (e.g. culture is a bi-product of these primary elements). With respect to your last comment about show me proof: my experience has been that culture changes in significant ways every time you add or subtract a team member, move offices, reconfigure mandate or have a budget cut. All of these changes happen in a single day and have a profound impact on the work environment. The reason I don’t have hard and fast examples of this type of transformation isn’t that it isn’t sustainable but rather that so few have tried it. How can we accurately judge whether or not this can work unless we have some experience doing it? Finally, I would say that far too often holding on to what we know is far more costly than taking a dive into what we don’t (Where I sit, it’s a lot less fun too).

@Dannielle – I don’t think that management sanctioned office reorganization is irresponsible, blow it up is a euphemism for being more blunt in change management efforts.

@Peter – I get the allusion to the Teddy Bear, but here’s a question: do we ever question the purpose of why we continue to do things the way we do, or do we simple cede to the emotional response of “this is comfortable” or the non-rational “this is how we’ve always done it”. Neither of which is an excuse for mediocrity or a valid defence of the status quo. I’m not trying to undermine your argument but rather put the shoe on the other foot, because that is exactly where it is for me.

@Carol – I would caution against under estimating the effect of physical space on our culture as there are definitely effects (quick read PDF).

Doug Matthews

I have to agree that the physical space matters. One of the first things I did in my last job was engage the team in a reconfiguration. Imagine a communications office built so that no one could see – much less talk – to one another. We essentially took the same footprint and turned it inside-out (or outside-in?). The immediate benefits to both collaboration and communication were notable. But a word of caution: the physical space is a manifestation of a philosophical and cultural shift. If you blow up the space but continue arcane ways of doing business, you’re not better – you’ll just have a nice new view of the same problems.

Shannon Donelson

Love this post! While demolition isn’t always an option, I think that a change of scene is very important. In our office, we will sometimes take our meetings outside, walk around the block and get fresh air while also having an enjoyable and productive meeting.

We also have these which make the work environment more fun. When you need a short creative break, grab a nerf, draw a target on the whiteboard, and practice your skills, just avoid shooting co-workers in the eye (that would probably have the opposite impact on work relationships and office morale).

Thanks for another great post Charney!

Ross Travis

The coordinators (CSRs) at ProVoteSolutions made a modest attempt to re-image their office space. They couldn’t tear down anything more than cubicle walls but they did make the room more of an open space and are happy with their “new” office.

Peter Sperry

I still have visions of over enthusiatic communicators with power saws suddenly learning the meaning ot the term “Load Bearing Wall” 😉

Sonya

I am old and like my cube walls. I wish I had a door and cieling on my cubicle too so it would be a real box, or would that be an office? Sometimes I need to have chats with team members & stakeholders that others just shouldn’t have to be part of. There are not free conference rooms to run into for these purposes. I want to be free to blow my nose and reposition my waistband as needed, without putting on a show. (What has been seen cannot be unseen…) I personally detest the no-cubicle table farm or the low-walled cubicles that turn everyone into a prairie dog, peeping up over the tall grasses to see who is doing what, where. I find concentration in those open environments damn near impossible.

HOWEVER, in principle, blow it up has been a very useful concept. Tom Peter’s work is based on BLOW IT UP and “REIMAGINE!”. While I don’t agree with Tom on everything, in general he hits the nail on the head a lot of the time.

I think that even in office & cublicle-farm environments we can look at figuratively blowing it up. Honestly, our budget wouldn’t allow any type of facility reconfig even if it would solve all our communication & innovation problems. But the people can look at blowing up old conventions, old habits, traditions, and unspoken codes. There are cliques, clubs, and tribes that need blowing up. There are zombie documentation rituals and meeting routines that need to die and be replaced by modern tools and conventions. The liberation of BLOW IT UP comes in being able to unchain ourselves from “we’ve always done it this way…. be one of us…” and think fresh, act fresh, and get fresh results. Blow it up leads to ReImagine!