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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 31, No. 4 * March 1, 1999

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'Remodeling Office Space and Office Relationships'

Remodeling offices is a "hobby" in many agencies. Needs change, technology changes, staff members are added or positions are deleted and offices need to be remodeled. Many agencies operate caseload-driven and mandated programs, such as jails or indigent health care services.

These agencies are almost always searching for ways to change office layouts or build new facilities.

Trying to do your job in the face of hammering, construction workers "orbiting" the office, dust and temporary relocations can be disrupting and frustrating. The added pressure in the office can make underlying problems in people’s relationships at work rise to the surface.

Office remodeling can inadvertently become a catalyst for people to "act out." The construction can become the excuse for latent, interpersonal difficulties to spill over into bad morale and harmed relationships.

Not often enough do managers consider the human interaction components of a successful remodeling project. An office remodel is not only a project requiring engineers, office designers and construction workers. This is the time for managers to also deliberately put on their "human resources’ professional hat" and deliberately take steps to build into the project a component to deal with how people will come to understand and support the project.

Failure to build in this component can be as damaging to the work site as a failure to include electrical wiring or plumbing components into the project. Here are some tips from the HR Doctor on not only remodeling an office to improve the space layout, but also to improve the human relations design.

First, as described above, deliberately build into the project design consideration of employees’ feelings about the need to remodel at all, and how the project will be organized with their needs and opinions in mind. Perhaps have employees or an HR staff member involved in the very initial phases when considering remodeling.

Next, take the time to clearly communicate your "vision" of what the office will be like and why the remodeling will have a positive outcome for employees and clients. The project can have a theme or a name. One agency with multiple work sites is trying to consolidate to relieve employee communication problems and improve service. The project is named the "one home initiative."

Staff meetings should occur to review the current difficulties of the office layout and all the work that goes into redesign. Employees throughout the agency need to know where they stand, in terms of being able to provide input into the design of the office layout. After all, the subject matter "experts" in how the work gets performed are the employees who do the work in the first place.

Sheriffs would be very well advised, for example, to include correctional officers in the design team to look at the layout of the jail facilities such as booking and jail pods. Providing opportunities for the public service clerks in offices such as those of the county clerk or treasurer to help design the public service area layout is another example. These are the steps that will lead employees to feel good about the project and be more understanding of the disruption involved.

An additional design element is to clearly communicate an overview of the phases of the construction project to every employee. Periodic status reports showing how and when the tear-down work phase of the project relates to the rest of the activities, for example, will help employees see that the process is moving in a logical way so they will know in advance what to expect next. Delays are, unfortunately, a component of many construction projects.

Employees should know in advance that delays are possible and information about them should be communicated quickly and truthfully.

If the remodeling is using a design already in place in another agency, a manager should consider sending an employee or two to view the other site and bring back information and photos to give colleagues at work a glimpse of things to come.

Keeping an office photo album or photo display showing the construction through its various phases will be a valued remembrance of the event for employees to look back at later.

The noise, dust and disruption of an office layout may require special needs for employee accommodation. Employees with chronic asthma problems, for example, or mobility-impaired employees using wheelchairs or walkers to get around should have the opportunity to discuss with managers, privately and sensitively, the fact that accommodations may be required such as temporary relocations away from the construction area.

Having as project manager a well-respected and sensitive employee who will communicate every day with colleagues is an essential element.

The manager of the project should be visible and should take the time to speak to every employee in the construction area to find out how they are doing and to give them a chance to ask questions about the project.

To the extent possible, construction work should be done after regular hours or on weekends – especially the noisiest part of the work.

The construction project may also provide an opportunity to allow employees to wear casual clothes, partially telecommute, work a modified schedule, or otherwise gain some experience with workplace flexibility.

There may be general agreement after the project is completed that some of these 21st-century workplace practices should continue long after the ribbon-cutting takes place.

The results of an office remodel should not be something "bureaucratic." Plain, drab walls may do nothing for ongoing morale or the pleasantness of a work setting. Consider planning for the kind of plants or art which would look great in the office once the project is over. Many counties have a library art loan program, or employee artists who would be willing to lend or donate artwork. A parks department may have a nursery which can provide agency offices with plants or flowers.

Finally, plan a reception or office lunch in the new surroundings to celebrate completion of the project and to thank and recognize those who made the work successful.

The project manager, the employees on the design team, and those who were, perhaps, most inconvenienced during the process, should be recognized and, perhaps, awarded tokens of recognition. A hard hat might be good.

This kind of attention to the human impacts of construction and remodeling projects will result not only in an office which is better laid out, more functional and attractive, but office relationships which are strengthened. Employees who can work through complicated and inconvenient activities like major remodeling can also work through ongoing office needs and public service improvements. While you are remodeling the office, the HR Doctor advises that you use the project as an opportunity to remodel working relationships.

If you would like to contact the HR Doctor, please feel free to do so at the e-mail address below or at the HR Doctor’s fax number: 954/796-9495. Best wishes.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor
e-mail at

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)

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