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  • Performance Environments: Change Management

If not for the fact that opposites attract, the merger of two Ann Arbor insurance agencies with wildly disparate cultures would seem to be an unlikely match.

In one corner: a satellite office of the Toledo-based Hylant Group, one of the country's largest insurance agencies, a hard-charging outfit with a keen eye on growth. In the other: Dobson McOmber, a century-old local agency content to earn much of its new business through referrals.

In short, the merger was shaping up as a classic collision between Hylant's sales culture and Dobson McOmber's service culture. And if that wasn't jarring enough, the merged employees would soon be mingling under one roof that would be new for all of them.

"Our people had to adapt to a move and a merger all at once," says Patrick Savage, a former Dobson executive who now serves as chief operating officer of the combined firm—Hylant Group of Ann Arbor. "After all, there's little point in merging if you can't take advantage of operating efficiencies by consolidating offices."

IDENTITY CRISIS

But where to consolidate? Hylant chose Domino's Farms, a sprawling office park in northeast Ann Arbor that also houses the headquarters of Domino's Pizza. Nestled in a prairie-like setting—a buffalo herd even roams the grounds—the office park draws its inspiration from the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright.

For employees of the original Hylant agency, who had been toiling in an office building on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, the move presented the uneasy prospect of transitioning to a much larger environment—Dobson McOmber contributed by far the bulk of employees to the merger. Meanwhile, the Dobson McOmber clan foresaw problems of its own.

Why? Dobson had more than 100 years of history in downtown Ann Arbor, the last dozen in a historic building on Main Street. True, their space was a bit choppy, as old buildings tend to be. Still, it was downtown, where Dobson employees wanted to be—right in the thick of restaurants, shops, and all those vibrant vibes associated with the University of Michigan.

"Morale was low," Mr. Savage admits. "Our employees feared that by leaving downtown they would lose their identity."

CHANGE MANAGEMENT

In an effort to resolve the cultural clash, Hylant decided to use Herman Miller's Workplace Change Management service at the suggestion of the Herman Miller sales team and Facility Matrix Group, its Herman Miller dealer.

"Given how much resistance there was to the move, this project seemed to be a prime candidate for change management," says Lisa Whalls, vice president of marketing in the dealership's Ann Arbor office.

"Our service persuades employees to embrace workplace change by making sure everyone knows exactly why it's necessary and how it's going to happen," adds Rick Reid, the Herman Miller account development manager who assisted Facility Matrix with the project. "That's exactly what Hylant needed."

Though typically associated with the massive moves of Fortune 500 firms, Herman Miller's Workplace Change Management service also makes sense for modest moves involving smallish headcounts—in Hylant's case, fewer than 100.

"Our job was to identify what culture Hylant and Dobson McOmber were coming from, determine what culture they wanted to develop together, and figure out how their workplace could help them get there," says Tracy Brower, who heads up Herman Miller's change management practice.

Turns out, building a sense of community was important when the two firms became one. So, too, was creating a workplace that would help attract the top talent Hylant needed to meet its ambitious growth plans.

The first order of business, though, was to disabuse employees of the notion that Hylant's sales culture and Dobson McOmber's service culture were mutually exclusive.

"Employee communications developed as part of the program emphasized how the new Hylant could combine the best of both cultures," Brower says.

That message was initially shared with employees when they gathered to check out the new space when it was still just an empty shell. Next, Herman Miller's change management team developed a communication plan to reiterate key move messages and keep employees in the loop. The centerpiece: a frequently updated intranet site containing the latest move news.

The plan also included monthly move meetings, an online newsletter, a convenient procedure for e-mailing questions, and welcome packets to help employees get comfortable in their new workplace. Herman Miller even urged Hylant to conduct purge parties—"Tidy Fridays" Hylant called them—to streamline the move by pitching and consolidating as much stuff as possible beforehand.

One thing more: To tie everything together, Herman Miller gave all move communication a common graphic identity. The theme: "Moving in the Wright Direction," a playful reference to Hylant's address on Frank Lloyd Wright Drive in Domino's Farms.

"The change management program gave me the freedom to focus on the nuts and bolts of our move," Mr. Savage says. "I understood the importance of getting employees on board, but there's no guarantee that would have happened without a formal process for making sure it did."

RESPECTING THE PAST

For Facility Matrix Group, the primary design challenge presented by Hylant's new space stemmed from its unusual dimensions—approximately 50 feet wide by 300 feet long, about what a football field would feel like if you walled off two-thirds of it lengthwise.

Asked to "respect the past while keeping an eye on the future," designers created a layout evocative of the bustling downtown Dobson McOmber employees left behind. Pathways meander through the narrow space, creating curiosity about what lies around the corner. Meanwhile, a wrought iron fence leads from the lobby to a coffee bar—with a little imagination, it feels like you're strolling to the neighborhood Starbucks.

Facility Matrix designers also peppered the space with informal meeting areas—some featuring Herman Miller's Celeste seating—the better to support impromptu chats when employees bump into each other "on the street."

Flanking one of the long walls are 50 or so Ethospace workstations, all configured in a 120-degree layout that creates a spacious, organic feel. Along the other wall are 30 private offices constructed of M-Wall floor-to-ceiling movable walls, making them just as easy to reconfigure as the Ethospace stations.

Senior executives also use M-Wall in a grouping of four centrally located hexagonal offices situated to facilitate chance encounters with Hylant staffers. These executive pods all feature back doors that open into a private "backyard," a casual seating and meeting area that overlooks the pastoral grounds.

As for seating, everyone has a top-of-the line Aeron chair—Hylant has handled enough workplace injury claims to know that ergonomics matter. Meridian stackable lateral files and storage towers also abound. There's an ample representation of Geiger furniture, too—tables in the conference rooms; casegoods and seating in the executive pods and backyard.

SPACE AS A MESSAGE

So has the move been successful? Absolutely, says new Hylant COO Patrick Savage, who points to two tangible metrics: For starters, he's heard no complaints, remarkable considering how much resistance there was to the move early on. What's more, recruiting seems to go more smoothly.

"Without a doubt, our new space has played a significant role in helping us attract the talent we want," Mr. Savage says. "People from our Toledo headquarters have even requested meetings here as part of their own recruiting efforts."

"Your workplace sends a strategic message about who you are and where you're going," adds Lisa Whalls of Facility Matrix. "Understanding that is especially important in places like Michigan, where companies have to compete for knowledge workers who could easily pack up and move to a sunnier climate. In this case, the executives got it—and were willing to create a work space that would help level the field."

RESULTS

Complementary cultures. Is it possible to merge a service culture into a sales culture and wind up with one big happy family? Herman Miller's change management program helped employees find common ground.

Reeling in recruits. Hylant executives figured a world-class workplace would appeal to knowledge workers with the skills to work pretty much anywhere. Early evidence suggests they were right.

Change is good. Employees who initially expressed reservations about merging and moving now feel right at home. Consistent change communication helped bring them around.

Downtown dreaming. How could a new office in the burbs compare to the downtown locale employees loved but left? Surprisingly well—especially because it was designed to evoke fond memories of their downtown digs.

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