How to Identify Workplace Priorities

The best workplaces drive organizational priorities. Here’s how to identify and act on yours.

The reception desk at Nuclear Energy Institute's Washington, D.C. office. Daylight glows through blue green translucent panels that emphasize words associated with the nuclear power industry, like “clean”, “air”, and “energy”. Photo by Ron Blunt, courtesy of FOX Architects.
The reception desk at Nuclear Energy Institute’s Washington, D.C. office. Daylight glows through blue green translucent panels that emphasize words associated with the nuclear power industry, like “clean”, “air”, and “energy”. Image by Ron Blunt, courtesy of FOX Architects.

The Nuclear Energy Institute isn’t a power plant, but you’d be forgiven if you mistook it for one. That’s the effect your workplace has to communicate the priorities of your organization.

When you step off the elevator at NEI’s D.C. headquarters, you’re immediately confronted with the concept of clean power and the priority of safety at nuclear power plants. The space is white with blue accents; everything is clean and bright and bright. Daylight glows through blue green translucent panels that emphasize words associated with the nuclear power industry, like “clean”, “air”, and “energy”.

As you continue through the lobby to the stair that connects the three floors, a blue glow emanates from behind a stainless steel mesh wall that is three stories high. It is a powerful, bold and stunning feature. NEI’s workplace is a powerful reminder of the mission and the purpose behind that organization.

Intentional or not, your workspace communicates the priorities of your company. In this article, Bob Fox, our publisher, and founder and principal of FOX Architects, will help you identify and act upon yours.

Intentional or not, your workspace is going to communicate the priorities of your company. Start by identifying what is unique about yours.

Tasked with the mission of bringing an industry together and expressing the meaning and purpose of the organization, the designers were first inspired by a trip a nuclear power plant. Priorities are determined and requirements are defined in the early stages of the design process; it sets the direction for the future and aligns the team. Priorities that are clear, consistent and communicated from the outset can be more easily achieved and significantly increase the chances of achieving a broad range of success.

Each organization should have its own unique set of priorities. Our workplaces speak to us; they provide feeling when we enter. These often subtle cues and messages are communicated through our experience: what we see, how we feel, and what we perceive when we enter a space.

Priorities can range anywhere from communicating a message, setting goals, building trust, creating transparency, to aligning the organization, increasing interaction, driving innovation, attracting talent, reinforcing leadership, sharing history, and improving performance. Workspace is a tool that communicates the purpose of the organization; it sets the context and defines the work that we do, and it’s one of the few physical tools we have that sets the stage or platform for how we conduct businesses. Creating the right physical environment is one of the most powerful tools that leadership has to shift the core of the organization and to drive the teams’ behavior.

The space celebrates and inspires the people who are doing the work, everyone shares the experience.

We are all well aware that the way we work has changed. Today, we don’t need to be in the office to get our work done.

The workplace of today is about business, commerce, and interaction; it requires a story, an authenticity that celebrates the product or service, the values, the culture, the message, and the purpose, and requires careful consideration of the unique characteristics of the organization. The space celebrates and inspires the people who are doing the work; everyone shares the experience, they should understand their common purpose and it should serve to build alignment across the organization.

When designing a new workplace, failure to consider the characteristics that make a business unique can hold an organization back. It can mean you’ll fail to adapt or change and even doom the organization when the top talent feels uninspired, struggles to communicate, and leaves.

Nuclear Energy Institute. Photo by Ron Blunt, courtesy of FOX Architects.
Nuclear Energy Institute. Image by Ron Blunt, courtesy of FOX Architects.

Avoiding the wrong priorities

It is easy to get caught up in urgent priorities that are focused on short-term goals. They may help to achieve an important objective but miss the mark on long-term priorities of the organization. In other words, they’re distractions, and they come from a variety of sources.

For example, if leadership is distracted by urgent cost or schedule issues, they’ll miss out on important workplace alignment, operational improvements, and value building opportunities. To avoid this, you’ve got to start early. Too many organizations wait until it’s too late and find themselves with insufficient time to adequately plan — they miss out on the potential value and unknowingly do a great disservice to the organization.

Cost is important, it must be managed, but no business is in business solely to save cost: there is always a bigger mission. It’s your job to identify what’s unique about that vision and communicate it to the designers who can then communicate it through your space.

Unfortunately, most organizations still look at the office space as an overhead expense.

Unfortunately, most organizations still look at the office space as an overhead expense. Much of the workplace that Americans still occupy today is the result of “Tayloristic” type of thinking: efficiency, standards, automation, and production line mentality. That worked well when clerical tasks drove the work environment, but the way we work has changed. You have to think about what is more beneficial to the organization: is it building an environment that is low cost, or building an environment that attracts the best talent and allows them to perform at higher levels? Each of your priorities should be judged against a similar type of question and depending on your goals the priorities should be set accordingly.

Further, priorities that change, that are not clear, that conflict, or that are not communicated clearly cannot be achieved. The team and the users will receive mixed messages, will be confused and the project will not perform as expected.  Chances are that the project will not achieve any significant improvement for the organization, severely limiting the potential value that the new workplace can bring.

When there are multiple and/or competing priorities, the challenge becomes determining the important priorities that will have a long term impact on bringing people together and building value then sticking to them. You must consider big picture goals to drive the organization forward.

How to focus and act on the right priorities

So how does a modern business best prepare itself to succeed in the highly competitive world that we live and work in today? How does an organization maximize its performance and inspire the talent to achieve great things?

The first and most important thing is to recognize that the workplace is the one place where everything about your business connects with your people. People (including customers), leadership, brand, ideas, innovation, products and services, operations, support, marketing, communications, meetings, operations, and technology — all of these thing emanate from (and connect to) a central place.

We all understand cars and trucks. There are thousands of different cars and trucks that are out on the street. Each one offers something unique: style, comfort, and efficiency, hauling capability, history, craftsmanship, safety, engineering, and performance. One person’s idea of performance can be completely different from another person’s idea or need for performance. We identify with a specific style, feature, or performance type of car.

Much like a high- performance car, the workplace is a tool that can align and supercharge an organization.

The needs are not much different in commercial office space, however, the available models are much more limited. It’s like in commercial office real estate everyone drives a Ford Taurus — where basic transportation, low cost, and efficient production is the main driver. For some that is okay, but most businesses today are highly competitive and need more. Your talent, operations, brand, culture, and other competitive requirements are more analogous to a Formula One racecar. A fine tuned and engineered platform that performs well, is comfortable, and is a much more competitive tool.

In order to sustain your business and compete, building value and taking full advantage of our workplaces has to become a priority. Much like a high-performance car, the workplace is a tool that can align and supercharge an organization. The workplace is the most important tool that an organization has to improve its performance and there are many ways to do that. Each organization is unique and it comes down to determining the priorities of the organization.

So in this rapidly changing world of work, how do you determine the right priorities? Here are a few examples:

People

Beyond technology, almost regardless of what business we are in, we are completely dependent on the talent that lies within our organizations. Many leaders who still employ the old school way of thinking often feel that they are at the mercy of that talent. Our businesses depend on talent — we are only as good as the talent that we can attract and keep.

Tools

Beyond the talent, there is an operational focus — you need the best tools to support the talent. This is where your workplace becomes very important. You must provide an environment where information flows easily and where ideas can be captured, but more importantly your talent must feel that it is conducive and productive.

Network

You must provide a network to connect all the knowledge and real time information — the links and connections for the talent to find the information that they are seeking, when they are seeking it. The network is what provides access to information for rapid problem solving and to information that is not immediately at hand, but could be rapidly changing.

Supported platform

You need a supported platform. This is the infrastructure the mechanics, the tech department, the HR support, the unique operational characteristics and infrastructure, the consultants — all of which expand the capabilities, provide back up, support and additional resources. You must understand and improve how these needs are determined, communicated and provided. This would include peer or peer support and the ability to provide backup and increased ability, the design of the workplace will either facilitate these activities to support people or hinder it.

Training

Then you need training to make sure everyone knows what they need to know, the expected behavior, all the protocols and how to use the tools, network and the system. There are a variety of ways that people can learn — individual mentoring or large classroom education — the space required for each to be effective is very different.

Lets examine some examples of the right priorities.

The message

This is probably one of the most important and easiest to achieve elements. It is important to let people know what their work is all about. The office or workplace is an opportunity to celebrate that. People want to see a clear purpose; to know what they are doing has value and meaning. The workplace is a chance to connect and communicate that across a broad range of the organization and to unify and align the people who commit themselves.

When someone walks into your space, you have the ability to totally shape his or her experience. You have the opportunity to communicate a message to them about your company, people, work or values. You have total control over what happens when someone enters your workplace.

How do you want someone to feel when he or she walks into your space? What is the image that you want to present? Is there a story that you want told. What is the message that you want to communicate? When they go back their friends what is the story that you want them to tell about your organization?

This is very unique to your specific situation and should be carefully thought about and developed. It requires creativity and an understanding of your business.

The culture

The culture of an organization is the sum of all the behaviors that are allowed or accepted, it is critical to an organizations success. Culture is defined as the set of allowable behaviors — it’s the lowest common denominator of acceptable behaviors of an organization; whether the leaders are present, or not. It’s the collective behavior of the organization and needs to be considered and managed and guided. This is the tool that will help to find people with similar values who are aligned with your purpose.

How do you expect people to behave? How do you expect leadership to behave?

The spaces that we use define and reinforce behavior. You get a feeling when you walk into a space – what it that? It is an inviting empowering space, or is it bland or even oppressive feeling?  Does it feel like you are walking into a highly secure area or into your living room? How is your brand expressed — it is like Disneyland or IBM?

A simple conference room prescribes specific behavior — you sit at a table, you listen or interact with the head of the table, all of those very subtle messages control the meeting. If you had the same meeting in a café like space the behavior of those attending would be very different. Considerations of those subtleties are very important to increasing performance.

Organizational alignment

You bring together people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Does everyone understand the purpose and mission of the organization? Does everyone know how to prioritize the quality of service or product? Is everyone focused on the same purpose and goals? The space can define and help to communicate those objectives that and make that crystal clear.

Operational efficiency

Getting the right skill sets and support put together to minimize waste and improves the quality of service or produce is important. This would occur on multiple levels and strive to understand how work gets done including the key processes and the ability of talent to build efficiencies through proximity or organization, with all of the necessary tools and support placed in optimal locations. Depending on the business, it might include looking at specific tasks or activities and creating areas that optimally support the specific task.

Choice

Choice has become a hot topic. Our desks can’t possibly fulfill all the tools we need to properly execute our jobs today. We don’t sit at our desks all day anymore; we need to move to locations that better support the task at hand.  We move around and we are involved in many more tasks than ever and it’s continuing to grow. The workplace should provide a variety of work places that allow us to perform at our best. This is as much about empowerment as it is about performance and leadership. It is about attracting the best talent and cutting them loose to do their jobs.

Community

This is about community in the broadest sense. There are many different communities that we interact with and benefits go in many different directions. But the single biggest opportunity is the ability to innovate. You cannot innovate in a vacuum. You need a mix;  a variety of ideas, people, and serendipity. How you interact with a variety of communities is key to sustaining the future of the business.

Health and well-being

Lets face it, the workplace has not been very healthy — it was never intended to be. What we are realizing though is that aspects of the workplace can actually cause harm over long periods of time if not addressed. Stress, inactivity, lack of natural light and fresh air, and more, do not serve to improve the human condition. It only takes common sense to consider that happy healthy people will perform better than a unhappy unhealthy people. So an important consideration is how to keep people performing at their best.

Attraction and retention

There is no question that attracting the best talent will vastly improve the performance of any business. Creating an environment that talent is attracted to and performs best in is the easiest way to do that. The best talent will not survive nor remain the best if the tools and environments are not conducive to the work that they are passionate about.

Innovation

We are in a rapidly changing world dealing with vast amounts of information. Our businesses today depend on rapid iteration and processing of that information. The design of the workplace needs to facilitate that exchange; anything that slows down the pace of that exchange will inhibit our ability to learn, grow and compete effectively. Sustaining the business long term is vitally important and the workplace is the one place that should easily facilitate building information into knowledge and expertise.

Set the priorities early and keep them straight, and the sky’s the limit.

Getting the above components right is critical for performance and takes time and it can be difficult.  The easy answer is to do what everyone else is doing, to copy something that you like — it probably won’t work. There are a variety of unique influences and characteristics of your business that need to be woven into your specific workplace.

When thinking about your next office, its important to realize that work can be done anywhere. People do not need to be in the office anymore, but the office is not going away anytime soon. How we use it will be very different. What is important is that you understand the most vital and important aspects that grow and sustain your business and make sure that they are properly prioritized.

In my practice, I see too many organizations that either do not have enough time or do not fully understand the value proposition of their workplace. Many of these tasks are delegated and measured against cost. They hire experts who dutifully execute deals and designs without the full knowledge of what’s really important to a business. Its not just about finding a place to fit all the requirements and check off the box, its about creating an environment that will attract the best minds, empower them, and enable them to exchange ideas and perform at their best. It’s not about a private versus an open office any longer. It’s about the community and sharing knowledge.

Set the priorities early and keep them straight, and the sky’s the limit.

 

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