CEOs Talk Workplace: A Consulting Firm’s Collaboration Hacks

Image of CEO, Sue Evans, courtesy of Evans Incorporated.

CEO Sue Evans. Image courtesy of Evans Incorporated.

Evans Incorporated — a Northern Va.-based professional services consulting firm with about 60 employees — moved into their current office nearly five years ago. That may seems like forever ago in workplace years, but the smart decisions they made when planning the space show a company that’s ahead of its time. We sat down with CEO Sue Evans to find out more about how the space supports their culture and promotes collaboration.

Bob Fox: Start out by telling us a little bit about Evans and what you do.

Sue Evans: Evans Incorporated is a consulting and advisory firm. We work with clients to help them conquer their operational challenges. Life tells us whenever there are challenges, there are generally people involved, and a people-oriented solution exists. That’s where Evans comes in; we bring a human-centered left brain/right brain approach to solving complex challenges. The right brain considers aligning people and, at Evans, we have people with backgrounds in social work, organizational design, human factors and organizational psychology. For the left brain, analytic aspect, we draw on engineering, technology, business, and economics backgrounds. It’s a range of backgrounds, but the expectation is for everyone to be very collaborative and to bring a team-based approach to our solutions.

So it sounds like your business is very dependent upon human interaction, that there’s a strong social component?

Yes. Collaboration is so important in how we work with our clients, and how we work with each other. We feel that our corporate culture is well-defined, and it’s well-protected by our employees. Seventy percent of Evans’ new employees are referrals from existing employees, so there’s a very passionate, protectionist attitude towards preserving the culture.

Image courtesy of Evans Incorporated.

We grew a lot last year and that’s presented some new challenges to the culture. To pave the road forward, we did a culture survey, using an internationally-established assessment tool and confirmed, as expected, that we are predominantly a collaborative culture. But as we continue to grow, we recognize that we must use the power of collaboration to help us innovate, build new solutions, and enter new service areas.

How does your space facilitate that?

That’s a great question. When we designed the office six years ago, the idea was to go away from walled offices into more open space. It was a transition with culture in mind. The idea that if people are seeing each other, and walking by each other, there are more opportunities to spark innovation. When we expanded the space a couple years ago, we incorporated more meeting spaces, both within walls and in open lounge areas. We also incorporated individual phone booths for quiet conference calls with clients, and a small café, where employees can have committee or group meetings to brainstorm ideas as well as have lunch or convene for happy hours. It’s a way of interacting without feeling like you have to go someplace else. The other thing that’s neat about our location is our office campus, where there are walking trails and a pond, presenting additional opportunities for people to go outside the space without driving to get there.

Let’s dig a little deeper into collaboration aspect of what you do. What are the tools that you use to facilitate the collaboration?

For example, when we have our staff meetings, we involve everyone, including our staff in New Jersey and Massachusetts. We invested in our people by investing in the technology that enables remote participation. But we didn’t stop there. In addition to the usual desktop collaboration platforms, we recently upgraded our internet service to support high-definition audio and visual telecommunication technology. It’s as close as you can get to face to face without really being there. It enhances effective communication beyond text, email, and polycom phones. Enhanced communication is essential to Evans, our staff, and our clients.

So you have the technology, you have whiteboards, any other things that you’re doing in terms of collaboration?

Just in terms of a platform of sharing, Evans migrated to cloud solutions, and invested in Sharepoint as a collaborative tool to integrate our offices. One use of the platform is as a dynamic bulletin board of sorts projected on televisions throughout the office and online. We post notices, reminders, and photos for everyone. It’s shared in the office, and mirrored in our Sharepoint site for people working remotely. We’re not a tech firm, so it may not be as sexy as some other platforms, but we’re looking for ideas from staff as they try new things to see what works.

Image courtesy of Evans Incorporated.

Yeah, but what you’re doing, I think a lot of organizations are struggling with it. There are a lot more remote workers. It sounds like you’re doing better than average there. How can you integrate them better in terms of the workplace?

When we did the culture assessment last year, we realized that remote culture presents its own sort of challenges, so we need to be very intentional about integration without always transporting people back and forth. For example, we conduct monthly Celebrations of Success, where employees recognize peers for their achievements. It’s traditionally held during the staff meeting, but we’ve become more intentional to make sure that people who work remotely have their accomplishment posted on our electronic bulletin board for all staff to see.

You mentioned the café. Can you describe a little bit about the interactions that occur there and how that supports what you do?

The café is a great space. You can stand up or take a seat, enjoy lunch or host a meeting. The café is used a lot for spur of the moment happy hours and extended celebrations of success. Because it’s a stand up place, people will bring food in and share. The kitchen and café are next to our library, and next to one of the TVs, so there’s an exchange of knowledge about the environment, what’s up, what’s happening. It’s a great place to serve lunch when we host offsite meetings in our adjacent conference rooms. The first thing that clients, job candidates, or any visitor says is, “Oh, wow.” We’re on 11th floor, you get a treetop view, see changing seasons, and hawks flying around. We host off sites, and clients love it here. It’s a great space for getting things done. It’s very convenient, and it’s very supportive for people who want to be connected, whether they’re employees or clients.

What’s the biggest value that you get out of your office space?

I really think it’s that collaboration, that closeness that people feel. We do have some private offices. For example, our finance area is closed to provide an expected level of protection. We learned from the prior offices what we didn’t want – it was lots of closed offices and lacked physical and visual connection. We’ve also learned and adapted to one of the consequences of a more open, collaborative design. We recognized that some people appreciate a quiet space, and created noisy space/quiet space atmospheres in two of the office areas. We also installed a noise reduction system to help eliminate background noise.

Image courtesy of Evans Incorporated.

So for somebody else who was beginning the process of designing a space to better support their business, any sort of recommendations or suggestions?

One thing we did when we started the design process six years ago was an employee survey, and asked staff what features they would like to have in the new offices. We realized from the survey that, even though we wanted to go to an open space, we needed a combination of open and closed. We had to think about how employees would be working, where they’re going to be working, and how comfortable they would be with the proximity to one another. I think that the survey really helped and would highly recommend this as an initial step. You will get a sense of different experiences and everyone will have a sense of contribution and greater buy-in to the change.

Anything else to share with us?

I think we talked about using the space to promote our brand. If our brand is about collaboration and the human-centered approach, then we needed to ensure that we were considering the human element and helping clients solve their team-related issues. We need to ensure that our employees don’t feel like they’re stuffed in, but are working in a space that is fun, and it encourages the right stuff. They should be proud to bring clients here – and clients, when they come here for all-day meetings, should see value and benefit at our space. In addition, the space makes it clear to interview candidates that this team is all about collaboration, openness.

Image courtesy of Evans Incorporated.

Is it fair to say that your space is a big part of communicating identity and brand as an organization?
Yes. It’s front and center on our website homepage – which showcases the first open conference room you see when you walk in our space. I think it’s very consistent with the brand.

One thing you touched on that I’m also curious about is the human-centered, well-being component. And I’m curious because I think that’s an emerging issue in the workplace right now. Are you doing anything in terms of promoting health and well-being?

That’s an interesting question because wellness kind of takes many different definitions. From a physical standpoint, our building has a gym that’s free and employees use it regularly. We have accommodations for standing workstations and people can move around. We encourage fitness and, as mentioned earlier, we have walking trails and a pond on the complex. We also have a lactation room for our many new moms. Considering work-life balance – we’re really talking about life balance. Wellness is also how you approach your work, and how you bring individual leadership into that. I believe that everybody is expected to be a leader here and how they manage their life at home and at work enables them to be effective personally as well as in business. It’s an area where we’re trying to be leaders as a company – and truly develop the whole person.

 

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