Human Psychology & The Office Renovation (or any change initiative, for that matter)
Remember that time you tried to change something and it involved other people? People will love this new thing, you said. It will make their lives so much better and easier, you said. Remember how you were blindsided by the push back, the skepticism as to your motives, and the accompanying anxiety, angst, and negativity directed towards you? Remember how you shouldn’t have been surprised because behavioral scientists have spelled out why change initiatives — large and small — can be fraught?
Over the years, we learn from our mistakes and missteps how change is felt across an organization. We learn that a time frame one person feels is painfully slow sends others into full-on panic. “It’s so sudden!” Sometimes a seemingly significant change is met with crickets, while a minor tweak requires multiple follow-up meetings, hurt feelings, stress, and the occasional related staff departure. This, in a nutshell, is what even the most communicative, open, and “in-tune” organizations face when attempting a change initiative. Understanding the people pitfalls that accompany these initiatives can help you hopefully avoid, or prepare for, hours of angst.
At Fractured Atlas about two years ago, we realized that with our next few hires we were going to run out of desk space. In fact, we had one new staff member working at a picnic table in the office waiting for a desk to open up.
It was slightly shocking to reach this milestone. Some of us could remember moving into this office with all the fancy (as in non-IKEA), 1990s-style cubicle furniture left behind by a company that went out of business and abandoned the entire floor. We didn’t know what to do with all the extra space at the time. We rented some of the rooms to other nonprofits, and still joked about tumbleweed blowing through areas that seldom saw a living soul for weeks. Over time though, our staff grew to the point where every desk was dedicated, and our two meeting spaces were routinely booked solid.
This dilemma led to a moment seldom afforded we in the cultural sector: introspection. Introspection about what people do in the work place, how the space is — and can be — used differently in the 21st Century than in the 20th Century, how could we design and build a space to help us do our best work and thrive.
We could have easily redesigned the space using smaller desks so that everyone still had a dedicated seat. (If this were my second grade classroom, Mrs. Dixon would have crammed 150 of those wooden flip top desks into the space and called it a day.) It was at this point that we realized, even though every desk was assigned, on any given day we only had 50–75% office occupancy. Most staff members work from home a day or two a week, people travel for work, take vacations, and are occasionally sick. This always left us with a handful of open desks but not extra ones we could assign to newcomers. We could renovate the office to add more, smaller desks to give everyone a dedicated space, but we still would be chasing scarcity.
We opted instead to take a step back to really look at how people use work spaces in the 21st century. For many of us, we came into the workforce using a typewriter or desktop computer that wasn’t easily portable. We worked where that device lived. Today’s portable technology allows many of us to work wherever we can find a decent Wi-Fi signal. Today, people move between multiple teams throughout their day. People might bounce from concentrating on writing, then to video meetings, then huddling with a group white boarding a communications plan, and then making paninis with coworkers in the kitchen.
Today, more than ever, we have the ability to adjust our work space for the type of work we’re doing and how we work best. Sit, stand, walk, wobble; bright spaces, dim spaces, cozy spaces, clean spaces; high chairs, low chairs, spinning chairs, stationary chairs. Spaces for one and spaces for some. The office of the 21st century is a Seussian environment. With seemingly unlimited variations though, come seemingly unlimited meetings to discuss how this all impacts people in expected and totally unexpected ways.
The challenge you face during a change initiative is less about the thing you’re trying to change and more about managing the human response to the change process.
An office renovation, and for that matter any change initiative, is less about the renovation — the layout, the furniture, the color palette — and more about people’s perception of the process, reaction to the decisions, and acceptance of the change. Renovating an office in isolation is relatively easy: we’ll take that carpet, those desks, and paint that wall blue. Voilà! Once you introduce humans however, change initiatives become exponentially more challenging and fraught. Why? Let’s take a look…
Change initiatives are excellent opportunities to trigger the human “fight or flight” instinct. Someone says or does something (intentional or not), and we are quickly flooded with adrenaline and negative emotions. God help us if we can muster a clear, coherent thought that doesn’t make matters worse. Being able to identify what flips these switches helps us proceed with caution. David Rock created the SCARF acronym as a handy tool to flag those things most likely to move benign exchanges into crucial conversations.
Status. When we feel like our status is jeopardized it can trip the fight or flight switch. Think, “I’ve worked for years to get the choice desk by the window or the private office, and now I’m losing it in exchange for an unassigned desk, laptop and locker, just like the person who started yesterday.” Or, “I’ve been here for years working my way up to 20 vacation days a year, and my organization just nixed that structure for unlimited vacation days?” People objectively have more vacation days to use each year, but so does everyone else now, even the person who started yesterday.
Certainty. We are creatures of habit. I like to eat the same thing for breakfast every day, sit at this desk, and know that everything is in exactly the same place I where left it yesterday. It’s comforting. Don’t mess with it. Oh, I can’t sit here anymore? And the bagel place closed?!
Autonomy. When change initiatives don’t ask or include those impacted we risk flipping the switch. You have no say where you sit, what the office looks like, or whether you use a Mac or PC. It’s important to note that people can in fact be given lots of opportunities to weigh in; however, if they don’t feel like they were given sufficient opportunities you still risk flipping this switch.
Relatedness. This is about our relationship to each other. “I’ve sat with the same group of people for years and now I can’t? It’s going to change the entire way I work!” This is perhaps the biggest threat to change initiatives and building stronger teams and organizations. We hesitate to say anything that could threaten our relationships in favor of maintaining them. The longer we do this and just let the inertia of the status quo exist, the more comfortable we become and the harder it is for people, teams, and organizations to change.
Fairness. If people feel like things aren’t fair or equitable, we risk flipping the switch. “Everyone in my group gets a dedicated seat, except for me?” “Everyone in my group got a bonus, except for me? Just because?!” Additional warning here: this might not be the case at all, but if that’s how it’s perceived, flip away.
Perception is in the eye of the beholder.
Discovering the SCARF acronym during the lead up to our office renovation was a revelation. I sat there, frozen. This acronym explained, in a nutshell, why my days were wall-to-wall with meetings to discuss everything surrounding the renovation except, in fact, the actual renovation. It was another important reminder that change initiatives are rarely about the actual thing you’re changing.
Adams’ Equity Theory
Equity Theory says that people are constantly measuring what they put into their work against what they get from work, and people focus on determining whether the distribution of resources is fair. The theory asserts that employees seek to maintain equity between the inputs that they bring to a job and the outcomes that they receive from it, against the perceived inputs and outcomes of others. The belief is that people value fair treatment, which causes them to be motivated to keep the fairness maintained within the relationships of their coworkers and the organization.
Who gets the seat by the window? Who gets a seat? Who gives up an office? Who gives up nothing? Who is included in focus groups? Who gets to make the decision about furniture or wall colors? Who can work from home? Who gets a new laptop? Wait, someone got a new laptop?!
Equity Theory is fraught because it relies on the perception of equity. People’s perception can be clouded by many things, including a lack of perspective for their relative contribution to the organization, a lack of context for the work others do, and the fundamental attribution error.
The fundamental attribution error as in, “The reason I couldn’t complete the project on time is because I’m overworked. The reason you didn’t complete the project on time is because you’re incompetent.” The less frequently we see someone, the more dangerous the fundamental attribution error becomes. “I’m working hard here in the New York office, but I’m not sure how my coworker at home in Chicago is contributing to our success. It just seems like they get paid more than me to do something that doesn’t require the same hard work and dedication.”
Most people also think they’re above average. You see this a lot when people compare salaries. In a banded salary range, most people feel they deserve to be paid the maximum amount rather than recognizing that the middle of the band is where most people fall.
If everyone is stellar, that would just make them average.
Try this out: Which would you rather, receive a $3,000 bonus when the rest of your coworkers who do similar work receive a $2,000 bonus? Or, receive a $4,000 bonus when the rest of your coworkers who do similar work receive a $5,000 bonus? I’m confident — and research backs me up here — that while the absolute dollar amount is higher, most people opt for the lower bonus amount that gives them more than their peers. When approaching change initiatives, keep in mind actual and, maybe more importantly, perceived equity among employees. Being consistent with decisions and offerings will help address this.
Vroom’s Expectancy Theory
Expectancy Theory says that an employee’s expectations determine effort and performance. People are motivated by the expectation of the reward they will receive when they succeed, and that people calculate the level of effort required to receive a particular reward to determine whether the reward is worth the effort that is require to attain it.
Let’s look at this one in an educational context. Perhaps you had a similar revelation during school. I have a degree in Musicology. While I was getting that degree, I took a yearlong course on the history of opera. The course, and the instructor, were notoriously difficult. Dr. Pendle would include “drop the needle” portions on exams where we heard no more than a snippet of an obscure opera. We then had to identify the opera, describe its place in the canon, and expound on its details. (Naming the work and composer wasn’t enough, we’re talking full page answers here.) I studied my ass off for that course and no matter what I did, I couldn’t muster anything higher than a B+ on the exams. About halfway through the course, I realized that I was never going to get an A. But, if I recalibrated my study efforts, I could free up loads of time and still end up with a solid B in the course. So, what did I do? Walked away with a decent understanding of opera, and a B.
This is the theory where unintended consequences can come into play, especially if you don’t understand staff motivators. In other words, this is the one where assuming can get us into trouble. Top motivators for one person might not even make the list for another person. (Check out the work of Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton for more about this.)
How do you understand staff motivators in the absence of a formal assessment? Ask. Listen. Beta test a few things and see how people respond. Be on the lookout for those unintended consequences of motivators. Remove all the chairs to encourage people to work standing so they’ll be healthier? People sit slouched against the wall when their legs tire meaning they’re now at risk of developing neck and back pain. Extreme example, but you get the point.
Hertzberg’s Two-Factor Theory
Two-Factor Theory states that there are certain factors in the workplace that cause job satisfaction, while a separate set of factors cause dissatisfaction. Frederick Herzberg theorized that job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction act independently of each other. The opposite of a dissatisfier isn’t necessarily a motivator. The new, shiny office won’t necessarily make you like your job if you feel that you aren’t being properly compensated and don’t have a path for growth and advancement.
What are the things about your work that satisfy you? What are the things that make you dissatisfied? Not always the inverse, are they? Money stops being a satisfier after you reach a certain threshold. (Some studies suggest, on average, that it’s around about the $70,000 mark.) Regardless of what the level is, at some point, an extra dollar doesn’t satisfy you anymore. Sure, we’ll take it, but it ceases to be a motivator.
If part of what I really love and value about my job and working at this organization just disappeared, it probably doesn’t matter how much money you give me, I might no longer want to work here. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the biggest resistance and hurdle to change initiatives is the inertia of not changing, and the fear of losing people. Sometimes organizations change in ways that mean past satisfiers are no longer present. Imagine if you really love a good typewriter. The sound of cranking a piece of paper into position. Hearing the snap of the keys against the roller sounds like fireworks to you. OK, here’s an iPad with this typewriter app. Your office no longer has typewriters. Far-fetched example? Not as much as you’d think.
Inspire. Motivate. Coerce.
During the lead up to our office renovation I had a number of conversations with our architect. In one particularly memorable one, we discussed the emotional and psychological challenges related to moving people away from assigned desks to a primarily unassigned seating arrangement (some people call this “hot desking”). This wasn’t our architect’s first rodeo. She does this for a living, and explained that there are essentially three ways to get people to do what you want in renovations, or life for that matter.
The first way to get people to do something is to inspire them. Why are we headed to the Promised Land, what does it look like, and what will we be able to do there once we reach it that we can’t right now. Say it over and over and over again until everyone can see it and tell the story themselves. The second is to motivate them. It was at this point that she said bribery is also a way to motivate people. (In her previous work, one company facing a similar seating challenge gifted each staff member a personal iPad as incentive to give up their seat.) The third, and the group you hope to minimize by getting as many people into the Inspire and Motivate camps, is coerce. Some people, no matter how hard you try, or what you say or do, will be happy with the change. This group is the one that ultimately just needs to get on board or find a different place to work.
In any change initiative, you’ll find these same three groups. As leaders, our job is to paint in vivid detail the Promised Land, hand out some iPads when necessary, and try to minimize the number of inevitably disgruntled souls that need to be coerced.
Receiving a piece of praise and a piece of criticism seldom seem equally weighted. Think about the last time someone gave you a compliment on your work. Now think about the last time you received negative feedback about your work. Which weighed on you more? Which lingered longer? Unless you’re a marvel of psychological science, I’m going to posit that the negative feedback outweighed the positive feedback. Some studies find that you need nearly six positive comments to balance a single negative one.
How does this relate to change initiatives? People love to complain. It’s easy, we don’t even need to give that much thought to it. Even if it’s not meant as a complaint, constant feedback or input from the most well-meaning sources can feel like complaints. A barrage of feedback begins to feel like, “If only you were better at this I wouldn’t have to give you tips to be better.” It’s particularly important to remember this when receiving criticism, and strangely challenging for some reason to balance in practice when delivering feedback.
As a supervisor of those leading change initiatives, it’s important to keep this balance in mind. Those helping to spearhead the change your organization so desperately needs might begin to feel like their efforts aren’t worth the increased (real or perceived) negativity being directed towards them.
Studies suggest that losses are twice as powerfully felt, psychologically, as gains. This relates to why it’s far easier to give people something than to take it away.
Once someone has work from home privileges, try telling them that they now need to work in the office five days a week. (Think that’s not going to feel like a huge loss, ask Marissa Meyer and Yahoo! how people react.) Once someone has a private office, try telling them that they now need to work from unassigned desks like everyone else. People are incredibly resilient and adaptable. We quickly normalize new, positive things. Try something as an experiment and it quickly begins to feel like the norm. And you’re taking it away from me now, why?
I once worked for a nonprofit organization where one year we were fortunate to have enough money to distribute $100 holiday bonuses to employees. The next year didn’t go so well, and we didn’t have the money available to do it again. When people asked us when they’d receive their bonus, and we relayed the news, people reacted as though they were just told they would need to work for free for the next year. It’s far easier to give something than to take it away. In the end, with those bonuses, we might have been better off not giving them in the first place. Pop psychologists might refer to this as the, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” theory.
The Stages of Grief
We don’t need to lose a loved one to end up in the stages of grief (i.e., Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance). Any change initiative will mean, by nature of the definition, that something is changing. Something that I used to feel an attachment to is no longer. That crummy, old desk and computer that I complained about every day for the past five years? We had such good times together.
Change initiatives include physical, behavioral, and psychological shifts. It can be a different physical environment, or a change in technology — I used to create this document on a typewriter and hand it to someone, now I need to fax it, now you want me to turn it into a PDF and email it, now that entire process is automated?
Sometimes we stubbornly refuse to go through the grieving process in a last ditch effort to avert the change. I’m right, they’re wrong. If I just hold out long enough they’ll recognize that and things can go back to the way they were. Why should I put myself through the grief? Oh. Is that stage one or two?
When going through change initiatives, people can grieve in groups too. It can be comforting to know we can go through it together, but this can inadvertently leave people out. Perhaps someone missed opportunities to weigh in on the process or missed phases of the change. Maybe they had conflicting meetings or were out sick. It happens, particularly in larger organizations. Just when you think you’re turning the corner, those individuals remind you that they’re at earlier stages in the process, and unfortunately left behind from the group grieving.
Great, now what?
An office renovation is rarely about the renovation. The bulk of the work accompanying any change initiative is rarely about the thing you’re changing. So now what? It’s a well-worn cliché, but communication is key. I once read a study that said we need to hear things an average of seven times before we start to register it, understand it, and buy into it. What does that mean for change initiatives? If we communicate until we’re exhausted, hoarse, and blue in the face, we’re just barely touching the level of communication that’s necessary.
When we communicate, it’s important to frame the conversation. If I think you’re asking me for advice, but you think you’re just telling me how it’s going to be, then that disconnect is likely to cause us problems. You can use the Conversational Capacity framework as a good place to start. With an engaged workforce — something you should be aiming to cultivate — this is even more challenging. When people are engaged, they feel invested in the success of an initiative, which means they also feel like their input should be incorporated into the plan. Using Conversational Capacity to differentiate the type of conversation you’re having — Is this a command? Am I consulting the group? Are we going to take a vote to decide? Or are we looking for consensus? — will help alleviate the negativity around how decisions were made.
It’s also helpful to clarify whether you’re asking for feedback or input. Feedback is given after a decision is made in the realistic hopes of influencing future decisions. Feedback can come from anywhere but doesn’t necessarily result in change. Input is something offered before a decision is made in the realistic hope of influencing the decision. Knowing and articulating the difference for people in advance will help alleviate related distress.
You can also take a closer look behind the science of staffing and change in this course produced by National Arts Strategies and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. (Full disclosure: A few interviews with me make their way into the content. Don’t let that deter you from this otherwise excellent course.)
The real shame about change initiatives, especially significant change initiatives, is that we often don’t get to leverage our experience through repeated practice.
We learn change initiative lessons the hard way, like through an office renovation, and then God help us if we ever have to do one again. It’s a bit like learning all the lines for Hamlet, delivering one memorable performance, and then never doing it again. If you’re going through this right now and feel lost and daunted — change initiative, not Hamlet — please hit me up. I would be happy that the lessons we learned were receiving an encore performance.
About Tim Cynova
Tim wears a multitude of hats, all in service of creating anti-racist workplaces where people can thrive. He currently is co-CEO of Fractured Atlas (an entirely virtual organization with staff spread across multiple states and countries) and a Principal of the consulting group Work. Shouldn't. Suck. He serves on the faculty of Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and The New School teaching courses in People-Centric Organizational Design; he's a trained mediator, and a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). Earlier in his career, Tim was the Executive Director of The Parsons Dance Company and of High 5 Tickets to the Arts in New York City, had a memorable stint with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was a one-time classical trombonist, musicologist, and for five years in his youth he delivered newspapers for the Evansville, Indiana Courier-Press. Also, during a particularly slow summer, he bicycled 3,902 miles across the United States.