Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Taking Harvard Wisdom to the Next Level

by  Holger Reisinger,

Harvard Business Review has calculated the positive effects of moving to new buildings designed for high performance. The numbers are staggering and highly convincing. But I have an even better idea.

I’ve been an avid reader of Harvard Business Review for years. There, you will find inspiring articles about modern business life written by the most prominent business leaders and professors in the world. However, it’s not beautiful pictures or inspiring infographics that are pulling me in. To be honest, HBR is as visually appealing as a nuclear power plant. In HBR, just like the power plant, the power certainly lies within.

That’s why I didn’t react at first, when I saw images of some exceptionally hideous office cubicles on the Harvard Business Review’s website the other day. But once I started reading the captions, the article certainly got my attention.

Faster, cozier, and more productive

The article was about what crammed, uninspiring cubicles and open office spaces do to us as individuals and companies as a whole - and what the pharmaceutical company, Lilly, chose to do about it. When they moved to a new office space, it had been deliberately designed as a high performance environment. The results were no less than remarkable.

Let me list the headlines:
  • Total square footage per employee dropped from 212 to 156 square feet
  • Furniture cost per employee dropped from $9,100 to $4,900
  • Capital cost per employee dropped from $34,000 to $18,000
  • Hours lost per employee, per year, to noise dropped from 32 to 22.8 hours
  • Hours lost per employee, per year, to drop-by visitors dropped from 34.8 to 22.8 hours
  • Hours lost per employee, per year, waiting for feedback or approval from managers dropped from 29.6 to 13.6 hours

So, what’s the secret of the perfect office building? First of all, the cubicles have to go. The cubicles are the sum of all evils. On one hand, they are open enough to let all the noise and disturbing co-workers in. On the other hand, they are so confined that they prevent open discussion and innovation among the people surrounding you. Instead, you need a combination of open space offices designed for innovation and cooperation, and quiet rooms for work that demands silence and hours of concentration.

Building separate quiet and interaction zones also means that people shift positions, and are not tied to one table all day. This is good news for the economy. Recent research shows that employees only spend 35 percent of the day at their desks, leaving a lot of space unused all day. With flexible rooms, you need fewer tables and fewer square feet. At the same time, you use the space for what you really need: quiet rooms and meeting space (which always seems to be in demand in all organisations).

The new open spaces also boost cooperation and knowledge sharing. It’s easier to spot the bosses to get quick approvals when you need them. That makes decision processes faster and smoother.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these new working environments make employees happier and more productive. Not a bad result, given the obvious cost reductions you will get from the new designs.

From spaceship to

Lilly’s new headquarters marks a trend with the most prominent companies right now. If you want to stay ahead of the curve, you switch the old cubicles to new, environmentally friendly buildings designed to increase performance. Just think of Google’s playful headquarters, Samsung’s new Gold LEED-certified building, or Apple’s infamous new spaceship-like HQ in California.

I know, I know. You are probably thinking, “Yeah, right, but my company cannot afford a glorious new building. They didn’t even approve our application for new chairs last year!” -and that’s where I have an idea that can take Harvard’s (and Lilly’s) wisdom to a new level.

Why not discard the fancy headquarters altogether? I’ll bet you that the most comfortable and productive headquarters of all is at home, that is, if the home is supported by brilliant communications and knowledge and information online sharing systems. Actually, research indicates that employees and teams are even more effective, innovative, and productive, if it is done right.

So here’s one from me to all the readers of Harvard Business Review (or my blog at least…): let’s build the perfect virtual headquarters. It beats Apple’s spaceship and Lilly’s superhouses every time. After all, there’s no place like home…

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It’s Time to Face the Big, Open Space

by  Holger Reisinger,

We’ve seen the research and heard all the warnings: big, open offices kill creativity, stress out the employees, and crush productivity. But this is only half the story. You can actually make open space offices work. All it takes is a very important choice and a closer look at your company’s culture. 

They were the kings of the financial crisis: the procurement officers that cut costs and gave imperiled companies the extra cash on the bottom line that they were dying for. They saved our butts when saving money was easier than selling products - and we thank them!

However, in order to cut costs on real estate, they also took big, open space offices to a completely new level. In a CoreNet Global survey, 55 percent of the corporate real estate professionals surveyed reported that square footage per worker has decreased between five and 25 percent over the last five years. Forty percent of the respondents predicted that their companies will reach less than 100 square feet per worker in 2017 (an all-time low).  And, the average for all companies for square footage per worker in 2017 will be 151 square feet, compared to 225 square feet in 2010.

Less space is money saved. But cramming people together in less space takes a toll on work life quality. An overwhelming amount of research shows that big, open space offices generate stress, spoils co-worker relations, and reduces employee motivation. Recent research from Sweden also proves that the bigger the office rooms, the more sick days increase.

So, here’s the combo from hell: in the coming years, employees will be forced into even less space – which, in turn, has been proved to reduce our productivity, wellbeing, and innovation.

Get the best of both worlds

Fortunately, the two can actually go hand in hand. The open office may have a bad name for a number of good reasons, but it is actually possible to make it work as intended. All that is required is for you to make a very important decision – and then start changing your company’s culture to fit that choice.

Ideally, work places need the best of both worlds: open space to facilitate conversations and innovation, as well as quiet rooms for concentration and individual work that require heavy-duty thinking. If you can’t have both, you need to answer a really tough question: what’s most important at your workplace?

When is your company’s most value creating work actually done? Are you most dependent on collaboration and constant interaction? Or, are you more dependent on individual work with a high concentration level?

Once you have decided, the next choices will more or less make themselves. First, the design: individual thinking is best done in a library-like environment; knowledge sharing works better if you dedicate your few square feet to a café-like environment.

When the physical layout is in place, it’s time to work on your company’s culture. All employees must respect the individual’s choice of workstyle. And you need to provide options if you need to collaborate in a quiet work-for-yourself environment and vice versa. That’s where stuff like small, separate rooms for meetings, opportunities for working at home, headsets to reduce noise issues, etc., comes in.

Engage with your employees – and make the decision together

Making the decision is hard. Of course, we all want the best of both worlds, but an office design that fits everyone fits … no one. That’s one of many reasons why you shouldn’t make this decision alone. You must make it along with the employees, and you must also lay out the ground rules and values of working together in the office space. In the library, you will whisper and respect people’s time alone. In a creative lab, you don’t hide behind a screen with your anti-social solitude.

If you all agree on the basics of your company culture, an ongoing fruitful discussion commences. How can we be even better at taking care of our work environment? How do we secure that we stay innovative if we primarily work in silence – and how do we get some personal work and thinking done if we are all in a constant dialog? In this way, we continuously improve. And that’s the key to any great achievement. Rome – and the perfect open office – weren’t built in a day.

The right choice, a supporting culture and continuous improvement, is the recipe for high productivity and happy employees. It may take some time to get there, but when you do, it means a lot of money for your company. And we know that money makes everyone happy – especially our friends in procurement! 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Most Annoying Thing in the World

by  Holger Reisinger,

Concentrating at work is not for the faint-hearted – especially not if you work in an open office space environment.  Perhaps, unsurprisingly, it’s our colleagues that are driving us nuts. Fortunately, there are ways to make sure you get the peace and quiet you need to perform. And don’t worry, it doesn’t include building offices for each and every employee.

I was introduced to quite a drama the other day. Best gossip ever from an old friend from my university days. The core of his story was a ménage-à-trois love affair gone entirely wrong. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space here to go into all the details, but a few headlines will give you the basic idea: guy falls in love with his old buddy’s girlfriend. They talked about it as mature adults and came to an agreement; he should keep his distance and not ask her out. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep his promise and from there, the whole thing exploded into arguments, slammed doors, old friendships broken, etc. Oh, and by the way, in the end, none of them got the girl.

How do I know this? Well, my old friend works in an open office space, and here, one of the ill-fated Romeos spent the past few weeks trying to solve the matter via his telephone – giving everyone else in the office front row seats to the whole drama. This got us talking about how there is no privacy in an open office for either work or more personal matters, which is the very reason why most employees hate open office spaces and noisy co-workers who, by far, are the largest nuisance when you try to get some work done. Our brains simply can’t cope with noise when we really have to concentrate. Just think about yourself in a car, trying to find your way to some unknown destination. What is the first thing you do? You turn down the car radio and ask the kids in the back seat to keep quiet for a while.

Noise kills productivity and - if you are unfortunate - yourself too

A couple of years ago my company helped analytics specialists YouGov design a survey about distractions and noise in the workplace, as noise is a productivity killer in open office spaces. Here, 36 percent of the respondents revealed that they are disturbed by people talking loudly across the office space, 29 percent have difficulties concentrating because of noise in the office, and 27 percent are disturbed by co-workers’ questions or remarks. Finally – and to me most surprisingly – 12 percent are often disturbed by co-workers eating crunchy vegetables. I guess they prefer the stick rather than the carrot!

The distractions and the noise are bad for your productivity and hence, also your company´s bottom line. According to a TED Talk by Julian Treasure, Chairman of The Sound Agency, and author of Sound Business, we only have the capacity for about 1.6 human conversations. This means that if you’re forced to listen in to some of you colleagues´ conversations, you’re only left with 0.6 for your inner voice that helps you write. In his speech, Julian also claims that office workers are up to 66 percent less productive in an open office plan than when left on their own.

The impact on our bodies is even scarier. Studies show that when the noise level goes up, your heart rate goes up. A study from schools in Germany showed an average noise level of 65dB. At that level, teachers have a heart rate close to the one doctors see before a heart attack.

Kill the noise before it kills you

What should we do about it? Well, fortunately, there are numerous solutions - and it doesn’t necessarily have to cost a fortune.

The expensive solution is, of course, modifications to the buildings. You can either install sound suppressing elements in the offices or – better yet – build quiet rooms for people to use when they have to concentrate. Quiet rooms are better than individual offices for everyone, because it leaves space for people to be together when they work together, and to withdraw to another area, when they must concentrate.

You could also gather everyone and decide on some common ground rules for talking and making noise in the office. Another solution is letting people work from home when they really have to concentrate. Here, they can find peace and quiet. But this, of course, requires that they have no other tasks that demand their presence in the office that day.

The luxury solution

Finally, there are headsets. Modern headsets have many helpful features. First of all, wireless headsets make it possible for people to leave their desks to go somewhere else when taking phone calls.  Other types of headsets enclose the entire ear, leaving out all sounds. That’s great if you like listening to music when you work. Finally, state-of-the art headsets have noise-cancelling technology that removes the noise so it never reaches your ear.

I actually gave my old pal a pair of these noise-cancelling headsets as a birthday present about a year ago. Given the above story, I bet you are now thinking, as I did, “Why didn’t you use them when you were disturbed by your colleague´s many phone conversations with his broken-hearted friends?”

When asked, he smiled and said: “The truth is, I voluntarily chose to listen in. I simply had to. These conversations have been the major subject of all rendezvous around the water coolers for the past few weeks, and I wanted to be part of the discussions. To be honest, it was great entertainment, too…”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

You Only Need to Attend Two Meetings a Year

by  Holger Reisinger,

Meetings are the killer of modern work life. Fortunately there is a better way. We should only meet twice a year and really get to the bottom of things – and then let the specialists take care of the rest.

Several years ago, I visited a Danish company who wanted to eliminate the insane amount of time they wasted for meetings – a pain point that many other organizations experience. Already, they created some strong points of view around better time management and prominently displayed advice through posters on meeting room walls. These were all standard best practices: start on time, prepare an agenda and follow it, stop discussions when they are not leading somewhere, make sure you agree on your conclusions, etc.

Unfortunately, good advice is not always followed and the campaign didn’t work very well..

From there, the company decided to take a completely different approach. Executive management dropped half of their meetings.  This empowered senior management to make more decisions rather than push them upstream. However, the responsibility of evaluating and making more business decisions equates to additional work time. With the need to spend more time on work, senior managers found themselves needing to spend less time on meetings as well. Over time, other employees found themselves with the added responsibility of making business decisions as well, so that senior and executive management were provided with solutions rather than additional problems.

This domino effect carried on all the way through to the lower levels of the organization. Decisions were still made, only more efficiently and more locally. People felt more ownership of business decisions, and took greater care to take more informed action even at ‘lower’ levels in the organization.
With fewer meetings, productivity began to rise.

Meetings are a waste of time. In a 2012 IndustryWeek survey, 2000 managers reported that at least 30 percent of time spent in meetings was a waste of time. Think about the time you spend during meetings. How much of that time is spent setting up, making introductions, dealing with technical issues or waiting on information that is not yet ready?  This time could instead be used making actual decisions that affect and drive business.

Meetings are bad for information sharing. Status update meetings don’t actually help get work done. A Clarizen/Harris Interactive survey done in 2012 showed that 67 percent of participants reported spending up to four hours per week to get ready for a status update meeting – not including the time spent to have something on which to actually provide an update.

Meetings may lead to bad decisions:  Our brains only have a limited amount of cognitive - or "executive"- resources. Once these resources get depleted, the likelihood of making bad decisions or choices increases. I­f some of members in the meeting are not mentally peaking, the larger group is at a disadvantage. Even worse, if meetings last too long, the entire group runs the risk of depleted resources, leading to greater likelihood of poor decision-making. This means that three or four hour project meetings are inherently counterproductive.

Use Meetings to Get to the Bottom of Things

So should we just quit meetings altogether? No…but we should use them for something more productive than how we use them today.  Take advantage of technology instead of to share status updates or make decisions. Innovation doesn’t require an assembly.

Instead, use meetings for in-depth discussions that go beyond simple planning. Face-to-face meetings encourage maximum bandwidth between people: we see the facial expressions, we get inspired and we form stronger bonds.

Only in meetings can we manage to get into real dialogue and embrace differences of opinions on the core part of our businesses that really matter. Here we must find common ground on the few important things that really matters: Where are we going? What are the main obstacles? Do we have the bonds that make us trust each other to help all of us get there?

But we only need these kinds of meeting a few times a year. Once the big picture and the strong bonds between the members of the group are in place, the rest should be left to smaller teams and specialists. If we start in alignment on purposes and goals, people should be entrusted and empowered to make the right decisions for the entire team. We can innovate and inform each other using online tools and technology – making business more effective and productive – encouraging a modern workplace.

And at this company that I visited several years ago, this is exactly what is now happening. We should all do the same!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Most Productive and Collaborative Company in the World

by  Holger Reisinger,

We all know that Disney is great at branding and Apple excels in innovation. But which company is the most collaborative and productive in the world? The answer is quite surprising and comes with a catch.

Scholars and industry specialists all agree that the ability to collaborate with partners, customers and colleagues across large, global organizations is the key to success in the future. However, there is much more dispute when it comes to which company or organization is the most collaborative in the world.

We all know we have to look to Disney for inspiration on branding, Toyota for LEAN management, McDonald’s for supply chain management and Apple for innovation. But which company sets the benchmark for excellent collaboration skills?

As a frequent speaker and blogger on how work life will look (and feel) in the future, I am often asked this question. Which company is a beacon of light when it comes to collaboration? Up until now I have not been able to decide. However, just like any other great question, it does call for an answer. So here it goes (and please read this through, because like any other good riddle, there is a catch…):

I believe that the most collaborative company in the World is … 37Signals.

Geek Territory with an Attitude

Never heard of them? I’m not surprised. 37Signals only has around 40 employees all producing apps aimed at project management. You may have heard of some of their products, most notably Basecamp, Campfire and Highrise. The company was co-founded and is now run by Jason Friedman, who was named in the MIT Technology Review TR35 as one of the top 35 innovators in the World under the age of 35.

The name 37Signals comes from the famous 37 radio telescope signals identified by astronomer Paul Horowitz in 1988 as potential messages from extraterrestrial intelligence. So yes, we are in geek territory here. However, it’s not just the employees and the products that are heavy duty, ‘state-of-the-art’ technology. Their work practice and way of running their company is in my opinion also a rare glimpse into the future.

Very early on, 37Signals made a very important decision about how their company should operate. Although based in Chicago, almost all employees work from home. Only around 10 of them live in the Chicago area. The rest of them are dispersed all over the world, from Germany to South America.  The company only hires the best people that fit their philosophy. And they don’t care where they are situated in the World.

The basic philosophy is that employees should do what they are best at – nothing else. And they work relentlessly to rid the company and all work procedures of stuff that kills productivity and wastes time.

Office like a Library and ‘No-talk Thursdays’

They call their Chicago office ‘the library’ and it is truly dead silent. People whisper and go outside to talk. They strongly believe that there is no need to ask your co-workers questions all the time. Any questions you may have cannot be as important as the stuff your co-workers are doing. Instead they post all questions on social wikis, chat rooms and discussion boards where everybody – all over the World – can participate when they have the time and it fits in their work rhythm.

To top off the ‘library’ bit, they even have initiated “no-talk Thursdays”, where you can’t talk in the office at all. And in the summer time, they work four-day weeks instead of five, as people prefer to be out in the sun.

One might think that these work practices must be very ineffective and costly for the company. The fact is they’re not. 37Signals makes a lot of money and is way more productive than most other companies. And here’s why: everything they do leads to results. If you don’t talk, you produce more. If you only participate in discussions when you are not productive anyway, you don’t lose time being disturbed by others when you are in ‘flow’. If you work from home, you save time commuting and get a higher quality of life – and that makes you more productive.

The four-day week? Well, they learned that if you have less time, you are better at focusing on doing the right things. With fewer hours you simply squeeze out the stuff that does not matter so much. They actually experienced that the company saved a lot of money as products became simpler and projects which had gone astray were stopped much earlier in the process saving tremendous amounts of money and time.

Focus is the core of 37Signal’s work model, also when it comes to promoting people. In 37Signals you never promote someone who is good at something. Why should you take a person who is good at making furniture and force him/her to stop making furniture and just manage others who do?

Find Your Own way – and Prosper

I’m sure you’re thinking that this sounds like 40 individual one-man bands more than a collaborative unit.  But that’s not the case at all. The chat room is exceptionally active, registering millions of lines of chat. And all employees meet 2-3 times a year for a full week where they spend ‘quality’ time together focusing on conversation and relationships, and abandoning ordinary work and the digital workspace completely during that week.

When I present 37Signals’ work model to others, most are intrigued, but soon after conclude that working there must either be heaven or hell. I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing. And that’s the catch of my choice for the award for most collaborative company in the world. It’s not 37Signals’ daily life you should imitate. It’s their willingness to be committed to their choices and implement them…fully!

Most companies don’t go all the way.  We try to collaborate, concentrate and have conversations at the same time. We make big, open space offices with no room to talk privately. Or we put people in small rooms where they are able to concentrate on their work and forget to bring them together to re-energize, innovate and bond. Or we force people to work from the office, when they would be much more productive at home. Finally, often employees are not provided with the necessary tools – nor the training – to make them collaborate and store information in the most effective way.

We should all do a 37Signals: Find our way of working, agree on it, and then implement it mercilessly. Then companies would make more money, employees would work more efficiently (and less).

Definitely not a bad place to be!

PS: I just learned that 37Signals has changed names to Basecamp to indicate that the company wants to focus more on its most important product. Check them out online; they are quite unique in so many ways.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Is Your Company Becoming a Digital Device Dinosaur?

  Holger Reisinger,

All over the world companies prevent their employees from bringing their own digital devices. But with more new wearable devices being launched and future – digitally native - generations taking over the labor market, these types of policies will drive your company to extinction.

Just the other day an old friend of mine called me asking an ‘existential’ question. She has just changed jobs and wanted to bring her beloved MacBook to her new workplace. However, it turned out she couldn’t. Company procedures only allowed PCs. No problem, she thought. I can manage and learn the ways of Bill Gates. And then the hammer hit: she couldn’t bring her iPhone either.  The company only allowed Android-based phones – at least if she wanted access to the company’s online resources and web mail.

A few days later she told me that she had decided to continue with her own phone. She had to keep another phone in her purse though, just in case she wanted to read emails from work after work hours. However, she also admitted that she wasn’t checking them as often as she did in her old job. Given her reaction, I couldn’t help but think how a ban on bringing your own devices seems so old fashioned that one could only worry for the future of the entire company if its other business practices equaled that of its IT policies. However, after looking up the stats I was in for an even bigger surprise. According to a 2013 TechRepublic and ZDNet member survey, only 44 percent of all companies allow employees to bring their own devices, although another 18 percent expected to lift the ban before the end of 2013. Hence, in 2014 roughly a third of all companies – including some of the most iconic worldwide brands today - have not yet embraced the diversity of techie stuff out there.

The Next Generations Don’t Give a Damn About Company Policies

That’s not good news if you plan to hire the top employees of the next, so-called millennial generation. According to a survey by Fortinet, slightly more than half of the digitally savvy young talents in their 20’s see it as their ‘right’ to use their own devices at work and not a ‘privilege.’ Perhaps even scarier for old-school companies, one out of three announced that they would gladly break any anti-“bring-your-own-device” rules and “contravene a company's security policy that forbids them to use their personal devices at work or for work purposes.” About a third would also be willing to use "non-approved applications" at work and two-thirds of those surveyed believe they, not the company, should be responsible for the security of devices used for work purposes.

The enormous investments and security risks associated with this attitude make me fear the worst. Not for the future of IT security but for the future of the most conservative companies around the world. If one third of companies have banned “bring-your-own-device” today, the attitude of future generations combined with the tremendous number of new types of devices about to be launched in the coming years will most certainly make more companies follow the path of probation. And I foresee it may very well kill off some of the giants dominating our daily lives today.

The prohibitionists overlook a very important fact in their analysis of future IT.  Young people do not think of their technology gear as IT equipment. They see it as an extension of their personality. They have carefully chosen, fitted and adapted their personal technology suite according to their personality, needs and self-image. Stripping them of their gear is roughly the same as stripping them of their clothes, family or nationality. You just don’t go there.

Stop Giving Employees Any Devices at All

Hence, this fight is obviously one you can’t win. And analytics companies like the Gartner Group agree with me. As a matter of fact, the Gartner Group has already predicted that by 2017, half of all employers will require employees to supply their own device for work purposes. They will not even make any device available: it’s simply not worth the time, effort or money.

So the era of ‘one size fits all’ is over in IT. And it’s probably also over in most other important areas associated with traditional work life. In the future we all expect special treatment, and our employers are doomed if they do not acknowledge each person’s unique qualities and needs. While the entrance of smartphones may have seemed like a revolution, it’s nothing compared to what is to come.  The future belongs to wearable devices, with Google watches and Samsung’s health bracelets as the frontrunners. Some 50 million wearable units are expected to be sold this year alone, according to IHS. That number is projected to balloon to 180 million by 2018. And most importantly: the wearable market is already growing at a rate five-times faster than the smartphone revolution that changed companies forever.

So here’s the short version of my recent experience. My friend didn’t just lose access to her iPhone. She took a hit to her identity. Companies who force people to change their lives so profoundly will cease to exist in the future, just like the dinosaurs were outmaneuvered by smarter, cold-resistant mammals. Make sure you evolve and adapt in time….