Change Management: Optimizing People and Space (Part 1 of 2)

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In Part 1, we introduce Change Management as it relates to workplace design, and why it is increasingly important to provide as a parallel service to architecture and interior design, even for smaller projects. In Part 2, we will highlight a Case Study of one organization that first implemented CM for a 450-staff renovation project, and continues to provide CM as a value-add process for subsequent smaller projects including one involving just 130 staff.


Read any recent article about the workplace and you’ll note comments about how the nature of work is quickly changing. Corporate cultures are radically shifting as leaders respond to a highly competitive global marketplace. People and space are the two most expensive assets, and each needs to be optimized in order for companies to flourish.

As interior designers and architects, we design the workplace to ideally leverage both of these assets to support our customer’s business goals and objectives. And it used to be that only large facilities undergoing huge cultural changes for 1000+ employees would invest in a Change Management (CM) program beyond traditional design services.

But recent years have seen a marked increase in CM programs for smaller organizations — as few as 100 staff members — as they seek to retain their valued staff and keep productivity high during the disruption of renovation and new construction projects.

Hard hat tours for employees help them envision their new office location.

Why do we need CM?

Not everyone immediately recognizes the need for CM, or even understands what it is when offered in the context of workplace design.

A simple but elegant description of CM was provided by Frank Duffy and his colleagues at DEGW when they described architecture as “preparing the space for the people” and change management as “preparing the people for the space.” [i]

Yes, people need to be prepared for the spaces we create for them. And that’s where CM efforts led by trained workplace strategists can open new opportunities for the A&D firm — and increase the effectiveness of their designs, thereby resulting in happier customers.

Involving the customer in design charrettes can be a very effective change management activity.

When times were simpler, and the cultural changes were minimal, we could get by without a separate CM program. Somehow, our customers knew how to work within the new office environment we had created.

Design trends were more gradual after the introduction of systems furniture in 1968. Our clients began to expect fewer private offices, smaller office and workstation sizes, more interior offices so that natural light can be shared, and more open planning and teaming areas with fewer hard departmental boundaries.

Shared pantries and the elimination of “suites” was part of the cultural change for VDOT, Fairfax, Virginia.

But today’s trends are moving far more quickly, aided by advancing technologies and fueled by a global economic recession that has pressured CEOs to aggressively reduce their real-estate costs.

As more companies embrace the mobile workforce and move towards 100 percnt unassigned workspaces, the design community needs to advocate for a CM program that works in tandem with the design process to deliver a work environment that the customer can embrace from Day One.

VDOT launched a robust intranet as part of its CM program. The site included may
resources including FAQs and electronic newsletters with articles written by, and about, their Change Agent Committee members.

What is CM and how does it relate to workplace design?

Change management orchestrates a smooth cultural transition for staff from their current work environment to their future workplace of new behaviors and furnishings. It’s a systematic program that parallels the workplace design and construction schedule.

Change Management ideally begins early, and parallels the design phases.

As one might expect, there can be many approaches to providing CM services. We have found it useful to describe CM scope using a ranking scale of 1-5, with level 5 being the most comprehensive.

Level 5 programs are very intense and sometimes extend beyond architectural and interior responses to the customer’s cultural change.

Level 1-2 programs are quite simplistic, often focusing on tangible products that greet staff during the construction period or on move-in day.

Most CM programs take a middle ground with Levels 3 or 4, focusing on the cultural changes for the individual worker as well as their communications and behaviors that will be changing as a result of the workplace redesign.

Open plan, with team meeting spaces and shared natural light, represented a cultural change for VDOT (CM program, Level 3)

Typically, the CM program is facilitated by someone who is NOT on the design team. That way, the CM program will get the focus it deserves, in spite of design deadlines.

The CM facilitator should have easy access to the design team since communication and coordination with scheduling is important. The facilitator may be internal to the design firm, an external consultant, or even a member of the customer’s organization. That person should consider input from the various functions of the organization, addressing the many aspects of corporate life — including how change will be implemented and ultimately received.

What makes CM effective?

Change guru John P. Kotter, prolific author of many bestsellers including Heart of Change and Leading Change, asserts that there are eight imperatives to affect real change. [ii]

Over the last six years, we have led several significant Workplace Design CM programs that were grounded in Kotter’s theories, as well as those touted by David Cooperrider,[iii] Richard Tanner Pasqaule, and Jerry Sternin.[iv] Although each CM project is unique, in our experience there are a few common characteristics of successful CM programs:

  • Visible and vocal senior level sponsorship
  • Active Change Agent Committee of 10-15 representatives from affected departments, who meet regularly (e.g., monthly)
  • Early launch, during programming or schematic design phases
  • Evolutionary process and deliverables, dependent upon staff interests and needs
  • Well-defined communications plan, with participation by staff change agents
  • Transition activities, such as pilot projects, mock-up workstations, and hard-hat tours

Of these six characteristics, the most overtly successful has been the participation of each organization’s Change Agent Committee.

In each case, these ambassadors were the real key to the success of their organization’s smooth cultural transition and effective communications throughout the CM program.

Mock-up workstations, even if crude and supplemented with foam core, can help staff become acquainted with new workspace.

It is important to recognize that engaging staff in identifying issues and solutions is imperative. When appropriate, they may be invited to participate in some design decisions and selections, which can thereby facilitate acceptance of their future work environment.

Pilot projects, or Living Labs, provided great opportunities to test new ideas for Sara
Lee, Winston-Salem NC (CM Program, Level 5).

Additionally, it is important to understand the importance of beginning CM as early as possible. It is quite common to be alerted to unanticipated “hot buttons” from the staff during the CM process, and such early notice and resolution often saves money as well as time by avoiding costly change orders or disgruntled and unproductive staff.

Throughout the CM program, the communications plan is central to the program’s success. Although led by the CM facilitator, it is the staff members who often provide the direction of the communications plans and activities ,which are tailored to their collective needs and interests.

Part 2 will highlight a Client Case Study, where the customer requested several successive CM programs to support renovation and relocation projects.


[i] Francis Duffy, David Craig, Nicola Gillen, (2011) “Purpose, process, place: design as a research tool,” Facilities, Vol.29, Iss No. 3/4, 2011, pp. 97-113.

[ii] John P. Kotter, The Heart of Change (Harvard Business School Press, 2002) and John Kotter, Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1996)

[iii] David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry, a Positive Revolution in Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, CA, 2005)

[iv] Richard Tanner Pasquale and Jerry Sternin, “Your Company’s Secret Change Agents” (Harvard Business Review, May 2005)

Image Credits:

  • Cheryl Duvall
  • Eric Taylor

Architect/Interior Designer:

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  1. The central reason for CM demand today’s is that the “drivers of workplace change” are not based on employee satisfaction or productivity, but rather real estate efficiency and cost control.

    Until we break the dangerous focus on RE as an isolated cost center we will have to pay consultants to ameliorate situations that are impacting employee moral and productivity.

    Some companies are waking up to the fact that RE costs are typically less than 8% of operating costs, a drop in the bucket beside the combined cost of people (~82%) and technology (~10%). When it comes to workplace design, productivity trumps cost so completely that it becomes almost laughable to look at RE cost savings. Even a +/-2% change in productivity will more than gobble up any significant savings (or spending) in the small 8% world of RE costs. It is because any good employee knows all of this intuitively that companies need pseudo-psychologists to convince them that their employers are not crazy.

    Let’s start designing workplaces that have one goal in mind: A more productive workforce. Then we can face our employees ourselves without an “expert” intermediary.


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