Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Intentional management 5: looking beyond simply managing personnel 1

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on April 20, 2014

This is my fifth installment in a series in which I discuss how management activity and responsibilities can be parsed and distributed through a business organization, so as to better meet operational and strategic goals and as a planned intentional process (see Business Strategy and Operations – 3, postings 472 and loosely following for Parts 1-4.)

I have focused up to here on the issues of directly managing other people and their work activities and that makes sense as this constitutes the core responsibility of management. But management also has to include organizing, developing and maintaining an effective workplace environment that is supportive of employees, and at all levels and positions on the table of organization. Management is also about providing employees with the resources they need, workplace environment included, that can facilitate their doing their jobs.

I stated with this context in mind, at the end of Part 4 that:

• “I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment, where I will delve more deeply into how intentional management, and a dynamic strategy-to-operations and back approach, works in practice. And in anticipation of that, I note that effective management is only partly about managing a business’ human resources: its staff of in-house employees and any outside consultants or contract workers or others who might be contributing their effort and expertise to the business venture. It is also about managing their work contexts. And as a part of that I will discuss issues like workspace layouts that can be fad-driven, or strategically planned out and developed as part of an overall business plan and regardless of faddish considerations. Just consider the spread of cubicle farms in business settings large and small, as an already old business layout fad example. I will look into cubicle approaches to office set-up among other possibilities.”

Effective workplace layouts help employees to cost-effectively carry out their duties, and in the immediate here and now of meeting current and immediate deadlines and work schedules and longer term where confidentiality and information security can become more important too. When I write of confidentiality and information security here I am encompassing more than just protection of confidential business intelligence such as client personal information and sensitive business finance data. I am also including the need for employees to be able to think out loud with their peers and explore still only partly developed ideas – ideas that when more fully developed could become that business’ innovative next step forward in maintaining and even enhancing its competitive edge, and ideas that when fleshed out and developed could help identify and address gaps that if left unaddressed could lead to loss of potential. And I begin here with cubicle-based workplace designs as they variously meet real and genuine needs, and as they can also simply enact fads.

Cubicles can be among the least expensive of office layouts, affording employees a more open, better lit work space while still affording at least some privacy. Cubicles can increase employee to employee communication and make collaboration easier and more real-time and certainly when a workplace etiquette is developed, balancing privacy and capacity to work uninterrupted with communication and capacity to reach out and connect. In this, employees develop and acknowledge cues that they offer each other that signal when their “office door” is open and they are freer to speak, and when it is closed and a more pressing reason would be called for, for interrupting them. Cubicles can work. But cubicles can decrease efficiency too.

That can fairly obviously happen where ambient noise throughout a work space develops, and in that context I cite building construction noises from next door – a situation I have had to deal with, or when the business has and needs to use sometimes noisy equipment in one part of a situationally too open larger work space. But that type of problem can be self-limiting; that new office building next door does get finished, and noisy equipment can be moved to a more enclosed space if needed. And meanwhile, windows can be closed and it is even possible to bring in white noise generators and similar approaches for lessening distractions. The real problem here is much more insidious and it is one that tends to be long-term and to be built into the business’ management system and into its culture.

• Often, hands-on workers work in cubicles, and they might be able to more freely interact and communicate. But their managers are hidden away in separate offices and office suites with closed doors and full floor to ceiling walls. And this can create real barriers between those managers and the teams that they are supposed to lead.
• The more effectively connected managers stay available to the people they lead, the less likely there is to be drift between what is expected and what is being done, or between what is expected and what is actually needed, and both for goals and priorities set and for what is worked upon and how.

As I have noted in other postings, I have literally moved into the open workspace and cubicle space of the people I work with and manage, and as a C level officer – and particularly when addressing change management challenges and when immediate two-way communication is crucial if our combined effort is to succeed. This means listening while speaking, and it means proving through action that those employees and their issues and concerns are of acknowledged importance that is being acted upon. But I am not writing here about addressing developing crises or about change management – not in this posting. I am writing about businesses that seek to reach and maintain their fullest potential and to do better, on an ongoing basis and even while already fundamentally sound.

Workplace layout is one of the key factors in making that possible, or for inhibiting and even thwarting it – and how that work space is used. And I go back to my comments above, on when cubicle approaches work. When cubicles are set up and used, it is vital that managers not be locked out of what is going on in them, from a perception that holding an office and with its closable door shows they are higher up in some social and power based hierarchy.

It is vital that spaces be set up where hands-on employees, and employees and their managers can come together in small groups to talk and share ideas and regardless of overall workplace layout. It is vital that everyone individually have room to work uninterrupted too when they need that in order to carry out their professional functions. Workplace design and layout should support the business and its business model, and the business culture in place and the business model and culture should support the business and the people to carry it out. And this, ultimately, means supporting its employees, and supporting their staying connected and their communicating while giving them the space and time and opportunity to perform their jobs.

Nothing I write here is original. Nothing I write here should be taken for granted as for every business that gets this right, there are still way too many that have addressable problems here too. As a matter of intentional management, this means meshing how a business is set up and run with the constraints and opportunities of the space it has to be carried out in – which can be set quite literally in stone from the basic layout and architecture of the building this business occupies. But even there, flexibility in how a set building layout and design is used, and determination of what activities are carried out where in it and by whom, can still allow for workable flexibility. Think of this as assembling a giant puzzle, whose form and solution is going to have to be flexible enough to evolve as needed. And think of this in terms of trade-offs and of longer and shorter term costs where workplace constraints can collide with business model and business execution needs. Sometimes businesses need to redesign and rebuild their current location spaces and sometimes it would even make more sense to relocate if they are to be cost-effective and remain successful. And I have not even touched upon the customer experience up to now. I am going to widen this discussion in a next series installment to include a fuller range of stakeholders. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. Also see HR and Personnel and HR and Personnel – 2.

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