I have started watching a new series on Amazon TV – Swamp Thing. For those who haven’t seen it, and it can be gory in places, the basic plot line is along the lines of a wealthy guy who wants to make the Southern US swampland more productive, so he gets a crazy scientist to add a mutagenic agent into the water to speed things up. Clearly, this guy doesn’t watch Netflix or Amazon otherwise he would know what happens when you mess with things!

That is a neat segue into cultural DNA on how we work, and how teams change the way they collaborate. We started this journey when we ran the first pilot in our ‘Step Change’ wing in Surrey. The first ‘step’ in changing our physical environment was to shake up the way we work, how we think about our offices and providing us with an environment to innovate.  That was back in 2012/2013 and it spurred me to write an article back then on the topic.

When you speak to people nowadays, it seems as if every company and every office has gone through this revolution. The old rows of beige desks are probably stacked up in a warehouse somewhere.  Everyone has bean bags, lots of glass everywhere, and executives have lost their offices and are bonding with their staff in more open spaces (yes, I know…..not all of them!). I can’t remember the last time I saw a PC tower on a desk. It is all virtualised now, making life so much easier for Desktop support teams. Oh, how I remember PC upgrades and the support guys working to upgrade every PC! I used to help in our area sometimes. It made a welcome change from the issues on my projects to just take instruction from the support team and work through the banks of PCs.

We have transformed most of our offices, but it has not been an easy job. The journey started in 2012 and we will probably only be done globally by 2020. What does that tell you? For one, you seriously must consider the lead time for these things. Capital expenditure for almost every company must be spread across several years. Your Corporate Services team can only run so many office upgrades, which are very disruptive to staff and the business, plus vendors have long lead times when you request several hundred new desks, chairs, partitions, etc. The key message here is that we must not underestimate the time it takes to put the foundations in place to encourage innovation. It is not as simple as saying that you want innovation to happen and it just kicks off.

So, where are we now? Everyone has a bright, colourful, new environment and innovation has been a hot topic for years. Therefore, innovation must be steaming along, generating superb idea after idea, no? Your company is no longer threatened by those young start-ups, you are a lean mean, agile organisation enjoying the fruits of disruptive and radical innovation….no? So why is that, then?

The sad fact is that changing the physical environment does not necessarily release the creative juices in everyone. Let’s look at some of the challenges these changes have created:

Not everyone wants to change.

  • There is a good colleague of mine whose face comes to mind whenever I start preaching about how much better our environment is with all the new collaboration tools and spaces AND ‘new ways of working’ (agile, scrum, MVP) and I metaphorically ‘duck’ (and I am sure that if it was acceptable behaviour,  real flying objects might actually come my way!). According to the Office National Statistics (ONS) and if I am reading the latest statistics correctly, there are over 21million Gen X and Baby boomers still in the workforce. Now some of us like change, but I would hazard a guess that a significant number of these are not too fussed by bean bags!! Baby Boomers especially, I would imagine, wonder what all the fuss is about. I mean, living through rationing gives you a certain perspective on life that your average Gen Y is not going to understand –  their main concern may be that the Wi-Fi is not working.

So, where am I going with this? Yes, Gen Y & Z will most likely make up most of the working population by the 2030s, but right now we still have a lot of people who possibly struggle with the new concepts of the changing workplace environment. A lot of these individuals are probably in senior positions. Ignore them at your peril. They need to be brought along on this journey and if they are not predisposed to accept the changes you make then you are going to have to put more effort in to help them ‘across the line’. Consider this:

Lets face it, it  is noisier and the thinkers are having trouble thinking!

  • I used to run a number of technology teams and as soon as we opened up the office, removing the desk dividers, 2 things happened – the Business analysts started complaining about the noise and the extroverts wouldn’t stop ‘socialising’. It is a concern that has started to be tackled by most organisations. I wonder if there is a sales correlation with headphones and the new office upgrades!
  • When I started work, you needed permission, yes permission to take your suit jacket off. That was the days when the office environment yo-yoed between freezing and baking. Headphones? Likely to get you sacked! Now, it is like looking in a shop window of all the different types of headphones available, Bose, Sennheiser, Beats, Shure. This shows us that adapting to a new environment is key to really using the environment optimally. In some cases, you have started to see ‘quiet’ areas appearing where individuals can focus on detailed work or analysis that needs some quiet space. Just as long as they don’t end up staying there all the time.

The environment changed but did the way we actually work change?

  • Smart new desk, colourful carpet, but still working the same way? What went wrong? Here we need to consider  making the change and embedding a mindset change. New environment, same old practices is just an expensive refurb! But we get very focused on project tasks and sometimes forget that the success of something like this is the need to communicate the changes, the reason why and more importantly, listening to our staff as we go through this change so that we are  prepared to adjust accordingly.

Finally, we are being challenged on how to use the space but more importantly ‘how’ we work.

  • I am reminded of a recent project where someone asked me when we were going to write a user guide? Surely this just means a failure in the User Interface? 1. Who is going to use/read it and 2. Who wants to spend the time writing it? Not me!! Instead there is the ‘wiki’ function in something like MS Teams, which means we ALL get to write the ‘user guide’ or should I say best practice, shortcuts, etc.

So, already we are starting to collaborate in the way we do the ‘how’ as well as having collaboration space to work in physically. All this changes the way we work and that feeds through to our cultural DNA.

Some people tell me it isn’t  the physical stuff we do that should be focused on. They say that we should work on the ‘how’ and challenge the emotional way that people tackle things and approach new ways of working. I agree that the ‘head space’ stuff is very important. I just think that we get there by physically changing the way people do things. It triggers people to think about things differently and THIS then feeds through to the ‘how’, which ultimately affects the cultural DNA (RNA??) of your company. Neither can be done in isolation, they both influence each other.

So, when looking to make changes, make sure your toolkit doesn’t just contain those glossy consultancy-worded tools for change. Include the odd hammer and screwdriver to change the physical environment to inject some real change. Don’t be afraid to tear down walls (the metaphorical ones, as well) even if you have only just built them. Change is a constant that needs to be embraced, love the ambiguity, but remember those souls who need help on the journey.