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  • Open Office

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  • Performance Environments: Change Management

Chemonics is an interesting organization. A for-profit company, it works under contract to the U.S. government and other donors to help improve standards in some of the world's poorest countries. From financing and agriculture to health and the environment, its staff works with local governments and businesses to build the foundations for lasting economic growth.

After nearly 30 years of moving from place to place to accommodate growth, Chemonics created a plan to design a new space, one that would facilitate how the company worked; reflect its corporate culture; show the diversity of their work; support collaboration and teamwork; provide a healthy workspace; and be environmentally responsible.

After going through an extensive review of furniture manufacturers, they felt Herman Miller fit their needs better than any other. Why? Because it wasn't just furniture they needed, it was information: What do we want our environment to feel like? How can we get employees on board with the changes? What does it take to be environmentally responsible? As they addressed these questions, Herman Miller's wide range of knowledge services and experts really appealed to them.

Their journey started with a Future Pull Workshop, "which is a very creative and pragmatic way of having people imagine their future ideal work environment and then identify and define the attributes that could make that place possible," explains Workplace Knowledge Consultant Tracy Brower.

"Defining desired attributes such as 'flexible, welcoming, creative,' also helped them articulate a common vision and to align themselves around that," adds Brower.

A trip to Herman Miller in Michigan continued the dialog as specialists in ergonomics, environmental responsibility, and workplace strategy provided more insights. Surprisingly, furniture wasn't even discussed at that point.

Having a Change Management and Change Communication Plan was also critical to Chemonics, as Sean Killian, who co-led Chemonics' communications effort around the move, explains. "Going from closed offices to an open plan marked one of the most significant in a series of changes the company had undergone," he says. "Our Corporate Communications Department was looking for best practices and innovative techniques to help manage this change."

They created a "jump" team of 22 junior level staffers to create a plan, take ownership of it, and deliver all the key messages. "We felt it would be a great opportunity to train them in best practices and really hone their communications skills," explains Mr. Killian. "Plus, the people affected the most by the move were the more junior employees, so we felt peer-to-peer communication would work best."

The whole team visited Herman Miller and then later participated in an in-depth Change Management Workshop. "A big part of that was learning how to handle objections and how to respond to them in a real and genuine way," says Herman Miller's Holly Kriger, Workplace Knowledge Consultant who co-facilitated the on-site session with Brower.

"One of the key things we learned was the importance of timing," says Mr. Killian. "Our communications team needed to understand that they couldn't be delivering messages to their groups randomly; it had to be done simultaneously. Otherwise, you end up with pockets of people who have the right information and others who don't, leading to informal 'water-cooler' conversations that can perpetuate rumors and destroy trust in senior management.

"Another very helpful takeaway was understanding there are cycles in change," continues Mr. Killian. "People go through phases: There's fear, anger, attempts at negotiation, and so on. Knowing that helped us explain the process to the executive team."

In the meantime, the Herman Miller design team and the American Office dealership had begun talks with the facilities manager about furniture and space planning. "We took a lot of concepts from My Studio Environments, such as permeable privacy and About Face orientation, and applied some of those principles to Ethospace, so people could have a choice about how much privacy they had," says Herman Miller A+D Representative Dyane Betteker.

In the end, a combination of Ethospace and Passage systems helped create the work environment Chemonics had envisioned. With input and guidance from Kriger and Brower, Chemonics created change materials that included a booklet given to employees when they moved into their workstations to orient them and welcome them to their new space.

Now that everyone has settled in, everything is running smoothly—which is expected in this final phase of change, says Mr. Killian. "It takes about three months for people to adjust. By then, they're not really thinking 'move' anymore. They're just using the space as it was intended."

Looking back on the experience, Mr. Killian says he also learned something else: "I realized that Herman Miller is not just a supplier of systems office furniture, but the predominant consultant in terms of space planning and innovative workplace concepts."

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