Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 1

Introduction and preparation

When a company or team experiences rapid growth, it’s exciting. But more often than not, that success comes with a price. Behind the scenes, leadership is faced with the challenge of frantically filling positions to meet the escalating client demand, teams are asked to gel quickly and work around the clock to hit client deadlines, and ultimately the quality of deliverables suffers. It can be difficult to keep a handle on exactly who is doing what—much less who everyone is.

Preparation

But there’s hope. Greg, Tim, and I expanded Intuitive Company more than sevenfold within five years, and our experience proves that building a team doesn’t have to be a haphazard process, and exceptional growth doesn’t have to lead to pandemonium.

I liken Intuitive Company, and the process we’ve taken to build it, to an organic garden. It required some high-level planning upfront, followed by easy-going care and light-touch nurturing. In other words, once we had all of the right components in place, we didn’t need to mess with things too much. In fact, we never explicitly developed a “growth strategy,” per se. We certainly knew from our past experience what not to do. Our goal was to build a workplace environment that was optimal for employee satisfaction. We were confident that if our employees were happy, their level of work would be exceptional, and that would lead to high client satisfaction (and referrals). We were right.

I’m eager to share what’s worked for us in the hope that other small businesses—or teams within larger corporations—might be able to apply some of the same philosophies and experience success.

Preparation was the first step. We founded the firm with a determination not to repeat the management mistakes we’d seen in our previous jobs—mistakes that led to high attrition rates and low morale. If there’s a word to sum up what our goal was, it’d be “openness.”

An open work environment is a must. We believe cubicles and closed-door offices do not help foster teamwork, communication, or creativity. Offices convey a sense of importance, and I’ve seen them be a ridiculous, energy-sapping source of jealousy and competition among employees at larger corporations (“Whoa, he’s got a corner office?”, “How come she has a bigger office than me?”, or “I better get an office after this promotion!”).

What’s more, I’ve witnessed how an office building’s overall location can improve or weaken employee communication and morale. That’s why we took great pains to set up a proper environment for success before our first team member was brought on board, and then moved into an even better space and location as we prepared to enter our next phase of growth.

Our floor layout is completely open. No one has an office, not even me, Greg, or Tim. We enjoy a floor-wide music system, cable TV in certain locations, fun décor, and amenities such as two stocked kitchens (including a beer keg!), vintage arcade games, pool and Ping-Pong tables, and even lockers and a shower. There are conference rooms for client calls and a separate lounge area for when privacy might be desired or required.

But perhaps even more importantly, our space is situated next to a gorgeous running trail in a cool neighborhood that has several coffee shops, bars, and a record store. Many times, employees will hash out ideas while “walking and talking” outside, or could just as easily pop into a café and brainstorm client projects in a different setting. From firsthand experience, I have no doubt that our office is much more inspiring than rows of gray cubicles in a nondescript building within an office park.

Now, I realize that not all firms can choose (or change) their locations. For the first few years after we started Intuitive Company, we were in a less-than-ideal space, but we made the most of it. So I encourage you to take a look at your floor layout and see if there are ways the space could be opened up.

Another key aspect of preparing our company for growth and success was establishing the kind of atmosphere we wished we had at other employers. An open floor plan certainly helps foster communication, but it’s not enough.

In our previous jobs, we’d seen too many managers send important messages impersonally, or in a tone that was condescending, demanding, or both. That’s why we choose to communicate in person as much as possible. There’s significantly less room for misinterpretation that way, and there’s just something about having a face-to-face chat that comes off as more respectful. Sure, we still send tons of emails, texts, and IMs to each other, but for the really critical things? We’ll always pull up a chair or head out on a stroll and take the time to have a real discussion.

I’ll cover our second step, planting, in the next installment. Until then, here are some questions to ask yourself as you get started on the preparation phase:

Opening up your environment

  • Could office doors be removed? Cubicle walls lowered?
  • Could desks be moved into the center of the floor, or perhaps line the perimeter instead of being in rows or clusters?

Encouraging open communication

  • Survey how communication works on your team or in your company as a whole. Is there passive-aggressiveness over email? Is there a lot of gossip?
  • How is good news delivered, versus bad news?
  • Would increasing the amount of in-person communication help cut down on rumors or improve morale? Try it out and see!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

Posted in Learning From Others, Workplace and Career | 3 Comments »

3 Comments

  • e.s.ringwald

    November 5, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    Thanks for this post. I’ve always found that walking outside during one-on-one meetings is a good way to get fresh air and clear our heads. It also has made for more honest exchanges because I have found that coworkers feel more free to speak (which I believe is a combination of the fresh air and privacy). Working in the open allows for great sharing of ideas and group problem solving, and I would hate to work any other way, but I think that it’s important for managers to have regular private one-on-ones with each member of the staff, too. I’ll take mine with a dash of sunshine and fall leaves today, thank you. I look forward to your next installment.

  • H

    February 12, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    I speak on behalf of 1/2 the workforce that needs and wants solitude to focus on their work and be creative. Research has proven that open office collaboration is only good for primary discussions and setting parameters of a project but the real creativity comes with being alone and thinking. Open office spaces are loud, distracting and actually reduce productivity. There’s a reason why people covet more private spaces within an office–they want peace and quiet while they work. Enough with the open offices already, they are not healthy or productive.

    Highly recommend watching Susan Cain’s Ted Talk:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

    Then read this article in The New Yorker:
    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/01/the-open-office-trap.html

  • AC

    March 11, 2014 at 2:39 am

    I agree with H’s comment, from nearly three years experience in an open concept workspace where I see folks often frustrated by noise levels, interruptions, and an overall failure to remain aware that space is a tool and should be shaped for the task at hand, not for a singular principle that’s value is more conceptual or metaphoric (openness) than it is literal. Moreover, there is an increasing body of research that points out the severe limitations of the open concept office. It’s hard to want to keep reading the rest of this series knowing how wrong-footed its 1st step is.

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