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After the Layoff, the Redesign


So many empty cubicles, such low morale. Let's call in the interior decorators

Ten thousand layoffs here, twelve hundred there: There's a lot of anxiety in the workplace, and a lot of empty offices, too. As the recession takes hold, there is likely to be more of both. So here come the interior designers trying to persuade executives to do something—anything—with the space where employees used to be. "It's kind of an exciting time because we consider ourselves change managers," says Jo Heinz, the president of office design firm Staffelbach Design Associates in Dallas. "Downsizing is often essential, and of course no one looks forward to it. But if it's handled well, it can help the company become more efficient and effective."

It's pretty obvious why leaving employees surrounded by suddenly vacated offices isn't a great idea: It's depressing. "I feel unstable. Who knows when more layoffs will come?" says a woman who sits in a row of eight cubes, only four of which are occupied after job cuts at the automotive company where she works. As all manner of consultants do, designers see opportunity amid all this uncertainty, and not just for themselves, of course. "It's a business imperative to transform the physical space quickly to send a clear message to the remaining employees, to say we value you and we're a viable, healthy company," says James Ludwig, vice-president of design for office furniture maker Steelcase (SCS).

Many executives, though, are loath to spend money after cutting jobs. If they do move people closer together, it's often so the company can try to lease some of the unused space. "Rearranging folks might improve morale, but it's a cost decision," says a facilities planner at a homebuilder that has gone through a series of layoffs. "We're not making people work on orange crates. It will continue to be a comfortable layout," he adds.

Heinz's firm, like many others, doesn't advertise its services. As it has done during other slowdowns, Staffelbach is working primarily with existing clients, none of which would be identified. When it comes to rightsizing, downsizing, whatever it might be called, the only ones comfortable discussing the subject are the consultants. Staffelbach's regular clients, though, include Bear Stearns (BSC), Motorola (MOT), and Verizon (VZ).

CASE THE JOINT

Clients call in Heinz and her team before any layoffs are announced, sometimes as early as four months in advance. They walk around the office late at night and during weekends to get a feel for the space without arousing suspicions. They meet with executives to help them think about how to reorganize the workplace to reflect new business realities: which departments are going to be working more closely together, which ones might shrink further. Designers often suggest turning empty offices into quiet rooms, where massage chairs, sofas, and plasma TVs on mute are common, or caucus rooms, where comfortable seating, good coffee, and Internet access are supposed to encourage brainstorming. And if that doesn't go over well, they might propose creating informal meeting spaces—no espresso machines required.

When the layoffs are imminent, Heinz's staff moves into a hotel near the client and sets up a command center. They coordinate the work of movers, liquidators, contractors, and furniture installers. After the announcement, the designers come into the office to oversee the move and deal with employees about to be uprooted. "We see people feeling disappointed and downtrodden. We bring in energy, a positive attitude. We tell them we're here to help," Heinz says. The most common complaint, she says, is about how much more work employees will be expected to do. "We always say: 'We're going to have your workspace so fine-tuned that it should be easier to be more productive.'"

MANAGING THE MANAGERS

As often happens after a major change, many employees at one energy company were moved from private offices to a smaller, open area to save space (and encourage collaboration—the new workplace buzzword). No walls, not such a problem. But no white boards? So Heinz found white boards that could fit in the workstations and encouraged the managers to let people write on the glass walls of the conference rooms with water-based markers. "After that, they were really happy," she says. "They got control over their environment."

At a company in Dallas, it was the executives who became cube dwellers. Heinz had to talk up the change as a way to allow more effective communication with their staffs. "And we had to show them where the closest conference rooms were and how to book them," she says. Indeed, several designers say they spend a lot of time talking to managers about the rules for the new, open workspace.

Naturally, some employees try to take advantage of the confusion. They set themselves up in bigger workstations or ones closer to their friends. They switch chairs, swipe computer monitors, appropriate printers. "We smile, say 'nice try,' and move things where they belong," says Heinz. Staffelbach labels every piece of equipment with a code that no one has yet cracked.


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