7. Optimizing Your Workplace Physically and Virtually – Lead With Your Customer, 2nd Edition:Transform Culture and Brand into World-Class Excellence

CHAPTER 7

Optimizing Your Workplace Physically and Virtually

When optimizing the workplace, there are areas and activities that your external customers should never see:

• areas unsafe or dangerous to them

• areas that do not pertain to the customer experience

• certain operational activities meant to be carried out away from their presence

• discussions that should not be held in front of the customers

• areas that permit employees time away from the customers to “let their hair down”

• employees on a break.

Imagine the impact at Walt Disney World if you were a guest and approached Cinderella, only to have her turn toward you smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee on her break. The effect would be shocking! Obviously, employees (including entertainers who portray fantasy characters) need to take breaks—and legally, of course, have the right to do so. To consistently give great service, they must be suitably rested and mentally prepared. To accomplish this, they need to be able to get away at times from those they serve, whether internal or external customers, during their shift to a break area—which may be a virtual or physical place where the employee can vent, handle personal needs, or simply relax without being “on” for their customers. If there’s no opportunity for employees to appropriately exhibit “offstage” behaviors, they will exhibit them anyway—onstage, where there will likely be a negative impact on your external customer experience.

We refer to this situation as separating the “front of the house” (facing external customers) from the “back of the house” (employee-only areas). In most organizations, the two are divided and rarely interact with each other—despite the fact that they both exist to mutually support the external customer experience. To begin the process of unifying these two spaces, many world-class businesses have begun referring to the “back of the house” as the “heart of the house”—acknowledging that the external customer experience would be impossible without the internal support team successfully delivering the promised products and services. Frankly, we really like this distinction. Unifying these two groups into a single, high-performing team is the first step in creating a culture of World Class Excellence. One vital aspect of this effort is to support the employees by clearly identifying what the external customer should and should not experience. This is also known as separating “onstage” from “backstage.” The key is to control the configuration of the workplace so that the customers—both external and internal—only experience what adds value for them. As simple as this concept may seem, it is one that few do well—and businesses suffer because of it.

Have you ever noticed that at many retail operations, employees take breaks in the front of the building? What message does it send to have employees taking a break in full view if there are long lines with customers waiting? The bottom line: If employees don’t have a place to vent, relax, or let their guard down, they will eventually do so in front of customers, thus undermining the value of the customer experience.

Sometimes, there may be heart-of-the-house areas that are open to customers. One example of this might be a general manager’s office. When the operation requires this situation, there must be an additional element of public presence, in the sense that such areas are clean and contribute directly to (and don’t distract from) engaging customers.

It’s Not About the Furniture

With respect to the heart of the house, consider the typical office environment. To truly engage employees and create a culture of excellence, most ordinary companies assume that they should spend their resources on expensive furniture or extravagant office perks. This flawed thinking has nearly always created the opposite effect from what was intended.

When it comes to the workplace and the experience for employees, it’s not about the size of the office or cubicle, or the coffee machines or foosball tables. These things on their own do not help employees perform better as a team or achieve higher levels of operational performance.

Make no mistake: It is critical to have the resources necessary to do the job well—whether that means serious hardware and software or the resources necessary to travel freely or to make the right impression. The goal must primarily be to create an environment that best keeps the focus on the customer, product, and service. Many leaders have made the painful mistake of trying to “buy” the engagement of their employees with furniture and other gadgets. But this is the proven reality: What works best is understanding the true needs of the employees and giving them the tools they need to exceed the expectations of external customers. Using the Customer Compass (see chapter 2) to accomplish this with your internal customers will help you identify details that will help. As a matter of fact, when it comes to the heart of the house, sometimes the greatest product can arise from the humblest of circumstances.

For example, what do Steve Jobs, Elliot and Ruth Handler of Mattel, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Bill Hewlett, and David Packard all have in common? Each started their large corporations in a garage.

There’s nothing special about the physical aesthetics of a garage. It simply can act as a focused incubator for possibilities because it is stripped down to the bare essentials. This distraction-free environment focuses energy on the more important goals of identifying that “game-changing idea” or truly understanding the customer. The idea of working from a simple garage suggests a state of mind and a rejection of the status quo in search of the next big thing.

In the successful wake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney built a beautiful new campus studio for his artists. Its design factored in the way sunshine would come into the space. He designed customized desks to optimize work, and he created an overall park-like campus that would be friendly to his employees. He also created a penthouse suite for his top-performing employees. But that act became fodder in what led to an inevitable strike of his employees—when that physical reminder served as a metaphor for unequal pay. The strike was eventually resolved, but not without hurting the more equal, flattened organization and physical structure shared by all when they started out in much simpler facilities.

When Michael Eisner took over as CEO of Disney, he wanted more space for live action film production. So, he moved the animators unceremoniously to a warehouse-like structure away from the studio. Conditions were basic at best, but in this environment, the animators redefined the animation art form, leading to a new renaissance that would include The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

Obviously, you must provide people with the resources they need to do their jobs—everything from the right hardware and software to furnishings and tools. Ultimately, however, the crucial resource is that they be in an environment that supports the culture you want to create.

Supporting the Culture by Investing in the Employee Experience

Today, most people know it as a company that offers sinks, toilets, bathtubs, and brass faucets, but the bold look of Kohler originated with immigrants from the late 1800s who excelled in European craftsmanship. To get these potential workers to come to America and accept work in its sometimes bitterly cold factory town in Wisconsin, Kohler had to invest in their entire employee experience. Now, however, guests visiting this amazing community of Kohler, Wisconsin, can stay at the American Club, which has been rated a AAA Five Diamond Award property for more than 22 consecutive years. This Tudor-style facility, which was renovated for guests staying in the area, was originally created to provide respectable housing, meals, and recreational facilities (including a bowling alley) for employees who could not afford them on their own. It’s a 19th-century testimony to the idea that if you invest wisely in the experience of your employees, you will set the stage for offering an excellent product or service for generations to come. If you create the right environment for your employees, they will behave in a manner that generates excellence.

Employee support takes many forms, both good and bad. Though some companies choose to have their corporate offices in key cities like New York and Tokyo, Sam Walton chose Bentonville, Arkansas, as the world headquarters of what would become the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. Why? Because, in part, the area provided year-round hunting and fishing for his employees. And because this was important to them, this kind of decision making reinforced Walmart’s culture of success.

The Benefits of Teleworking

We were delivering a program on building trust to a government auditing office. During the break, a manager from another division of the organization heard that we were presenting this program and asked if we could stop by his office during lunch, because he had some questions for us.

We stopped by during the noon hour. The supervisor explained that for some time they had been trying to develop a telework policy for the organization. There isn’t a federal group in D.C. that hasn’t begged for telework options—the traffic to and from work is simply horrendous around the Beltway. He wanted to know our opinion about a couple of high-tech options that help ensure that workers are truly at work when they’re at home. One of the options was taking some average of data input in a given period. Another was a biometric device for making sure the employees were near the computer.

We asked if there were concerns about employee output when they were in the office. The supervisor then elaborated on people who were asleep most of the day in their cubicle, or simply goofed off rather than doing the work assigned. After listening, we suggested that they didn’t have a telework problem; they had a trust issue. They were creating technological hoops for the entire workforce to jump through, when really they needed to focus on poor performers.

In truth, telework works! Forbes has listed several benefits, such as:

• improved productivity

• improved health

• keeping older generations in the workplace

• decreasing costs

• reducing employee turnover (Loubier 2017).

But these benefits only work in an atmosphere of trust and accountability. Virtual workplaces will only be more common in the years to come. It’s why organizations need to focus more on results, and not on being task driven. By the way, few things will motivate a workforce—in the office or at home—more than being results focused.

Workplace Culture and Organization Values

Some executives understand that the workplace suggests much about the culture. For instance, some will insist on having offices in the center of the building, rather than having a corner office window, allowing everyone else to share in the view. When David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue, flew, he sat in the last row of the aircraft—where the chair cannot recline. Passengers didn’t recognize him, but the crew did—and the message he sent of putting the customer first was extraordinarily impressive.

The key is to visibly model your corporate values. For some leaders, the message they want to send through the workplace is the value of creativity and innovation—for example:

• Red Bull’s London office offers slides that people can use to go between floors, as well as conference room tables that resembled table-tennis tables.

• Pixar’s animators decided early on that they didn’t want cubicles. So instead, Pixar has little cottages or huts, each of which is an office decorated in one of a variety of themes. Each has an address. Scooters are common everywhere.

• The offices of the genealogy company Ancestry.com pay tribute to the firm’s employees—and their roots. Portraits of long-tenured workers are hung next to photos of family members from generations ago.

• To see an example of the clean-and-lean look, take a trip to the Volkswagen Phaeton Plant. There is nothing greasy, cluttered, or dirty about this plant. This physical plant is building VW cars while maintaining an environment as slick as an Apple store.

• In the firm’s early days, Google’s employees worked at desks that amounted to wooden doors laid on two sawhorses. Offices now are high-density clusters with three or four staffers sharing spaces with couches and dogs. Recreation facilities include workout rooms, washers and dryers, a massage room, video games, and a baby grand piano. Roller hockey is played twice a week in the parking lot.

Although the tactical application varies, the message is constant and simple: Let your workplace reflect the culture you are trying to establish.

Get a Clue—for Culture

If changing your entire physical plant isn’t in the budget this year, consider just working on a “culture clue,” a simple reminder in the workplace that helps reinforce what you do and who you are. The simplest of these is the bulletin board. Almost every office has one near the break room. What’s posted (and what isn’t) on this board sends a huge message about your culture. While there, look for the trophy cabinet as well. What’s the date of the organization’s last accomplishment? Who and what were recognized? Is it even dusted?

Let’s consider an example. At the headquarters of Southwest Airlines near Dallas, the first thing you see is a huge model airplane surrounded by tangible evidence of the pride the company has engendered in the Southwest Airlines family. Most of the huge building appears to be more museum than operational offices. Nearly every foot of wall space is covered with small, inexpensive items, such as photographs, posters, inspirational quotes, recognition awards, and memorabilia spanning the company’s notable history—all greeting you with the distinct message that Southwest’s people are the true fuel that flies its jet fleet.

Another location for a culture clue is to go online to the homepage of your company’s intranet site. First, is the information current? This is a clue about the company’s attention to detail and where things are going organizationally. Second, what messages are posted about the culture? Culture clues exist throughout the workplace. For instance, many people who visit the Disney theme parks around the world are familiar with the windows on Main Street USA. These windows, which bear the names of past and present Disney leaders, are the highest form of recognition Disney bestows. And the windows also remind employees of what the culture represents—the friendly faces of people seeking to create happiness.

Culture clues also offer direction and inspiration to employees internally. ?What If!—an innovative, award-winning product development company—is consistently celebrated as one of Britain’s happiest workplaces. Photos of its employees across the organization adorn the walls of its boardrooms. Inside the hub—or the central, shared part of the company’s offices—you’ll find specific instances of contributions employees have made written across the walls and the ceiling. These kinds of simple, authentic gestures that align with your values make great culture clues.

Summing Up

Futurist and global thinker Buckminster Fuller stated that “you can’t change the people. But if you change the environment people are in, they will change.” This thinking summarizes what is so important about the workplace. Externally or internally, you have an opportunity to modify your workplace to optimize your organization’s brand and culture.

Next Steps for Building the Culture Through the Character of Your Workplace:

What behavior do you want to change or promote in your employees? What can you do to promote this through the workplace?

How can you separate your onstage from backstage areas? How can you ensure employees behave accordingly?

Make facilities open and available to all your employees. How can you avoid creating areas that separate or rank individuals?

How can you provide a space where your employees can be creative and innovative?

Check your bulletin board, your trophy case, and your intranet homepage. Are they sending the right messages about who you are?

Is there a quotation that expresses the core of who you are as an organization? Do you have it posted where everyone can see it?