As a workplace specialist, I regularly see office spaces of all shapes and sizes. And whenever I’m about to visit the workplace of a small business for the first time, I know I might be in for a disaster … or a real treat!
While some small business owners struggle to set up and maintain a high quality work environment as more ‘urgent’ work demands take priority, others manage to create spectacular and highly functional workspaces for themselves and their teams.
The amount of time, cost and expertise involved in designing large state-of-the-art corporate offices is substantial, and the results are still variable. Even the most carefully designed workspaces can end up somewhat dysfunctional and uninspiring, where getting work done is a real challenge, and where team members don’t quite feel ‘at home’.
So whenever I meet a small business owner who beats the odds and creates a truly high-performance work environment on a tiny budget, I’m impressed.
How come small business owners with limited resources often make better decisions about office design than large teams of experts? As it turns out, when it comes to setting up their office spaces, small businesses have a few ‘unfair’ advantages over large organisations:
1. Decision makers don’t need to hack through layers of bureaucracy to make things happen
In a small business, decision makers don’t need to present rational well-researched arguments to convince an entire team of stakeholders about every single choice they make about the design. Therefore, instead of over-analysing things, small business leaders can make certain decisions based on gut feel.
And this is a good thing – even in this age when the words ‘evidence-based’ are seen as synonymous with ‘success guaranteed’. The truth is that science doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to creating tailored, people-centred, high-performance work environments. There is no proven formula, for example, for designing a space that makes a certain group of people feel enthusiastic and energised
2. Decision makers know every person in the office
Leaders of small businesses have personal connections with each of their team members, and tend to genuinely care about them as human beings. Small business leaders also understand their team members’ personalities, what cheers them up, what upsets them, what distracts them, and so on. And even if they don’t know all of their people very well (just yet), they can easily sit down with everyone and ask any questions they need to.
Cultivating such close relationships with team members makes it easier for any decision maker to create great places for their people, not only because they understand their people’s needs very well, but also because their intuitive decisions tend to be more accurate.
3. Leaders and team members can easily change things around in the office as they wish
It’s nearly impossible to design a workspace where everything functions exactly as intended. People are complicated creatures, after all, so you can never be absolutely sure how they will respond to the new space.
In addition, things change fast in business. Team members come and go, new technologies are introduced, the organisation’s services evolve … and along with these changes, the way people work also evolves. This means that organisations, small and large, need to adjust their space from time to time to ensure that it gives their people the best support.
In a small office implementing change is easy. Small businesses therefore also have the luxury of making mistakes with their office design and then fixing them as they learn what works and what doesn’t.
The good news is that with a creative and courageous approach – and the spirit to challenge the status quo – leaders of large organisations can also make good use of these strategies:
- Be comfortable listening to your instincts, and feel free to make those decisions that may lack the ‘evidence base’ but feel true to you. If you know (deep inside) what the right decision is, there must be a way to get it across. Remember, and also remind the sceptics, that some of the most important aspects of workspace design – and people’s experience – cannot be quantified or described by one-size-fits-all formulas.
- Do what you can to build closer personal relationships with your team members. When you’re planning some changes to your office environment, picture yourself and your team in the space you envision. Does it look and feel right? Does it allow your team to thrive? Keep it simple, just as you would when picking a venue to connect with friends, choosing a holiday destination, or creating a home for your family. Keep checking in, ‘is this the right kind of space to bring out the best in the people I care about?’ You’ll know the answer.
- Create a highly flexible and adaptable office fitout to start with. Then keep observing how things function, talking to your team about the space, and changing things around as needed. Feel free to experiment.
Engaging expert assistance to create a work environment that brings out the best in people is of course a good idea, but the ultimate decisions about the design of an office are always made by the leadership team. Remembering these common sense strategies will help you make better decisions, and thus get better results for your investment in your organisation’s work environment.