No secrets here

Companies might talk about changing their culture and making it more creative and collaborative, but in most cases the reality is very different, causing frustration on all sides.

by California Management Review
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Managers often fail to realise that the office environment must be changed too. Investments services firm SEI, based in Oaks, Pennsylvania, used an opportunity afforded by a move to a new site in 1996 to radically redesign its office environment. Previously, it cost as much as $1,400 to move a worker from one team to another and sometimes this meant having to pull down walls.

So the company took down all the walls in its new site and gave every worker a desk with wheels, so it could be moved easily from one part of the building to another. A thick red wire snaked down from the ceiling (known as the 'python') providing instant connection to computer, phone and electricity. Now everyone worked together, informed one another of their work and answered client calls directly for each other (the company did away with secretaries as they were seen as a barrier to communication).

The environment encourages egalitarianism. All the desks are the same in an open, barn-like space with high ceilings. No one has a special office or dedicated space. SEI hoped that this will encourage people to share ideas and reduce the tendency to claim a higher status over others. Employees must decide where they want to work and with whom, and this encourages them to make their own decisions. It makes it harder to keep secrets, which helps team leaders to quash any problems before they get out of hand.

The office design encourages flexibility. Most employees restrict their belongings to two boxes and whenever they need to move they can do so easily. This means the company can respond fast when it needs to set up a new initiative and reconfigure the team in charge. There is nothing in the office higher than a desk, allowing people to constantly interact with each other. This is designed to maximise the exchange of information and ideas. The only closed areas are a few conference rooms. There is no executive dining room. People eat in a large cafeteria.

The West family (which owns the company) encourages a culture of creativity by displaying thousands of works of art from new artists. They choose the most challenging and often shocking works of art to stimulate debate (workers are encouraged to comment on them). The art collection belongs to the West family, so no one can claim the company is wasting its money on it.

The building has a 'hot hall' (a corridor between the gym and car park) where some of the most controversial pieces of art are housed. Some employees protested at a series of panels showing a dog being thrown into a bin (200 people wrote comments). The artist wanted to challenge people's perceptions of how a story is put together: reversing the order of the panels shows the dog being rescued.

Putting the organization on wheels: workplace design at SEI
Alfred P West, Jr. and Yoram (Jerry) Wind
California Management Review, Vol 49 No 2, Winter 2007

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