Friday, June 30, 2006

How to make IT workers less angry - Part Two: Environment

This is part two of my series on making IT workers less angry by improving their job satisfaction. Part one (go and read it if you haven't already) gave an overview of the three major factors in job satisfaction: environment, quality of work and pay/compensation. As I have not yet been silenced by the paid killers hired by the Cabal Of Disaffected and Exploited Information Technology (CODE-IT) workers, I will provide more detailed secret IT workers' business in this post. Today's topic is the work environment.

For IT workers, environment includes the physical space you work in, the facilities available, the people you work with and the "vibe" of the workplace. Physical space is one of the most important elements contributing to an IT worker's productivity and at the same time one of the aspects most ignored by employers. Simply making sure there is enough desk space to spread out the required machines, screens, peripherals, manuals, folders, notebooks and "quirky" knick-knacks can work wonders. Saving a few square metres of floor space at the cost of pissing off CODE-IT workers is a dumb trade-off.

The worst example of screwing up the working environment that I have personally experienced happened, tragically enough, in one of the better workplaces I have enjoyed. This place had many of the components of nerd paradise: a huge converted warehouse for the office, big desks, open relaxation/reading areas festooned with bean bags, a gym, great kitchen facilities and an in-house cafeteria with good quality food. But one bad decision (really a series of smaller bad decisions compounded by lies) poisoned the whole environment.

Expansion of the workforce meant some new desks had to be built. This meant we would lose one of the open areas but we could see this was unavoidable. The plan was explained thusly: new desks would be built right next to the development team (subjecting us to weeks of noise and disruption), we would move into the newly constructed area temporarily while our area was also remodelled and then we would move back. A pain but we could live with it.

Things started to come apart almost immediately.

The first time we saw actual plans it was obvious the new desks were way smaller than our existing ones. This would be bad but we could probably put up with it temporarily. Then construction started and the news got worse: these weren't open desks, they were high-walled cubicles from Dilbert's worst nightmare. Still, it was only going to be temporary, right? Yeah, right. We were told the new area would be occupied by the marketing group. Our existing area was near the windows, lots of natural light and good views. This was much more desirable than the new section, isolated in the middle of the warehouse. Can you guess where this is going?

I have never been lucky enough to work in a company where the CODE-IT brigade had more power than the marketing division. This place was no exception. Rumours started almost immediately that marketing was refusing to move to the new area and wanted our window seats. We were assured this wasn't true. Right until the day after we moved to our "temporary" home. Then we were told it would be permanent. But hey, marketing would get the same cubicle environment right? Not so much. They ended up with much larger desks with less oppressive cubicle walls. And all through this process and even afterwards, the facilities manager refused to admit he had done anything wrong.

So we were forced into a smaller space that had a direct negative effect on productivity and performance because it simply made it harder for everyone to work efficiently. And we were lied to every step of the way. The facilities manager was never made to answer for his actions and the CODE-IT team were made to feel totally marginalised. This sort of behaviour sends a very clear message to staff. You. Are. Not. Valued. Even though the other environment aspects were good, the damage done by this misadventure was pretty severe. Within 4 months, 20% of the CODE-IT team had left, myself included. And this was a comparatively good workplace.

For contrast, here's how my worst-ever workplace handled the working environment. When an opportunity to move to cheaper offices presented itself, they grabbed it with two hands. The actual desks weren't too bad although they did cram more people into a smaller space. The new desks had some positives and some negatives but overall they weren't terrible. Lower cubicle walls made the environment less oppressive but did make noise levels worse. And you can probably imagine how some cave-dwelling CODE-IT types reacted to having to interact with actual humans more often.

The real giveaway of what this place thought of staff was in the other facilities provided in the new environment. On a floor containing about 100 staff, the kitchen "facilities" consisted of a bench about 2 metres long adorned with a single microwave. That was pretty bad but what was worse was this was located right next to the toilets. And I mean you didn't have to stretch out your arms very far to touch both the kitchen bench and toilet door. This has bad connotations relating to hygiene (I wasn't alone in thinking this) but it got worse than this. The faint of heart and/or easily mortified may not want to read this next part.

Most male toilets have some sort of vestibule or at least a corner between the exterior door and the urinals. Not this one. A straight line view from the kitchen to the urinals. So the distance from you making coffee to someone standing at a urinal is about 5 metres with only a small wall next to the urinals obstructing your view if someone opens the toilet door while you're at the kitchen bench. So all it took was for someone to step back before zipping up and, well, you learned more about your cow-orkers than you wanted to know. Penny pinching that leads to such an appalling environment is a ridiculous business decision. The money saved on rent will be blown in the cost of having to continually recruit new staff when existing staff resign because they can't deal with the environment any more.

The people in the workplace are a significant factor when considering the quality of the environment. If you degrade the physical environment to the point where you can't retain staff, you can never build up a positive "vibe" between the staff and in the workplace overall. It can be very hard for potential recruits to gauge this quality so if someone is already happy with the vibe of their workplace they are that much more likely to stay where they are. If your goal is to maintain a stable workforce (and if this doesn't seem important to you - go the hell away) then investing in a quality work environment makes a lot of sense. It is usually far cheaper than endless recruiting.

It seems I have more to say on this topic than I realised when I started. So far I have only covered physical environment and badly implemented environment decisions at that. In the interests of keeping these posts manageable, I will continue evaluating environmental factors in another post. The next part in this series will highlight good environmental decisions that make CODE-IT workers love coming into work and staying at work for long hours. Even more important, make the right decisions and you can boost morale to the point where the majority of your CODE-IT legions will not even think of looking for another job. Including those all-important decisions regarding what software and hardware tools to provide.


pigeon weather said...

my recent company moved to a new space and filled one floor with "herman miller" designer cubicles such as these - - they were all white and arranged in a kind of honeycomb, so that to get from any one place to another, you had to walk directly behind half the people in the company. Everyone refused to move into these so-called cubicles (they were more like pods, and the overall effect was reminiscent of a stylistic emergency room). But since they had been bought by the CEO's wife, they could not be removed. So there was a stalemate, and people remained crammed 4 to a tiny office on the other floor, rather than inhabit those things. Funny thing is, as i searched for that link, the first several items on the search results were all for e-bay - companies trying to sell those ridiculous items!

Mr Angry said...

Ohhh, I've seen this sort of crap before. They think workers won't notice they're stuck in shitty cubicles if the cubicle look "high-tech". Yeah, that'll work.