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monthlies OnOffice July9

15 Sep 2009

Gill Parker on opportunities in a downturn

Words by 

Gill Parker, joint managing director of BDGworkfutures, explains how office design can aid staff morale while we wait for the tide to turn.

Major downturns in the economy such as the one we are currently experiencing are surrounded by uncertainty. While I hope, along with everyone else, that the economic climate will improve (and quickly!) I also hope that it won’t ever be the same again – or it will mean that we have learned and gained nothing from our experiences in the last few months.

Many office schemes are on ice until an upturn is evident, which means that the role of the designer in managing real estate is changing. The financial meltdown has left many organisations with no other option than to make redundancies in order to keep them solvent. While this is terrible for those who lose their jobs, it can also be pretty grim for those left behind. It is often a shocking reminder for these people that they are there for the business – and not the other way around.

Employee morale is possibly one of the most delicate and intangible elements of a workplace. The inertia of management can quickly have a dramatic affect upon the remaining members of staff. It is at this moment that the design of a space becomes crucial as the most visible indicator of how the business will be restructured. 

Empty Desk Syndrome (EDS) is one of the most conspicuous consequences of redundancies. A suddenly empty office is a constant visual reminder of absent colleagues and an uncertain future, all of which is incredibly unsettling. However, the impact of this can be minimised with the careful and thoughtful planning of a skilled designer. 

The office should be reconfigured as soon as possible to ensure that the employees are sitting together without huge voids inbetween teams. Getting employees to work in closer proximity creates opportunities for them to mix and results in a more dynamic working environment than having pockets of people physically separated by empty desks. Some organisations even take the additional step of closing whole areas or wings of building if the option of subletting is not available. 

When space is being replanned, be aware of the shifting adjacencies of people and departments – think positively, however, and it could provide a great opportunity to bring previously disparate arms of a business closer together, sharing knowledge and possibly discovering a renewed appreciation for different skill sets.

Although budgets are constrained at times of redundancies, money spent wisely on creating improved break-out spaces and informal meeting areas can have a very positive effect. Spending time and a little money to create a better working environment will be a display of management confidence in the future. Add to that small details such as free fresh fruit and decent organic coffee and it can really make a difference. 

Consolidation is of course a priority, but for those with some resources it can be an ideal time to start piloting and testing flexible working scenarios. This can take many different forms – from home working to desk sharing. If handled well, this can give employees greater choice in their work-life balance as well as providing a strategy for future property portfolio management. When under financial pressure and strain it is very easy to fall into the trap of making quick fix decisions to ease immediate pain, but it is vital to keep focused on the long term.

Flexibility and efficiency is key. Supporting staff with what they need in a well-designed environment can energise a workforce and prepare it for the future – surely vital attributes of any successful business in this tough climate.

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