When Your Walls Come Down: Using Change Management in Workplace Design


Still jetlagged from his trip to Norway, James arrived at the office just before eight. He rushed to the kitchen, grabbed a cup of coffee and settled in his office. He shut the door and listened to his voicemail, logged into the computer and started printing all the documents he would need for his 8:30 meeting. There was a knock at the door. Certain it was his Administrative Assistant Elizabeth; he sighed and said “come in”. After all, he was in a rush to get to a meeting! 

Before he left, she anxiously asked James what knew about the design project in the office. She needed to know what it meant – why they were doing this – where would she go. When would they move? What would she do with all her files?  Would they have similar office space? James quickly replied, “I’m late for a meeting. I’ll fill you and the rest of the team this afternoon. Can you set up a meeting in the large conference room for us? Thanks!”

Left wondering, Elizabeth quickly retreated to her desk further down the hall. She picked up the newsletter and read through it again. Design of the workplace? What does this mean…

Executive overview

Square footage per employee (the usage factor) is clearly in long-term decline, as firms maximize the efficiency of their office space [1]. Other companies are reducing their real estate expenses, which are generally a large cost after salaries. This statement confirms the trend of less commercial space and more efficient operations.  Corporations are downsizing their real estate to remain competitive in the current market. The workplace is changing drastically, resulting in a dramatic shift in the way in which work gets done. Spaces are transparent, the work is dynamic and the environments support collaboration. 

When the office walls come down, it is likely that employees feel anxious and exposed, unsure of how to conduct work in open environments. Changes in the workplace are no longer surface level; they will require significant behavioral change as well. Ultimately, the success of an office redesign depends on the adoption of the new space by its inhabitants: the employees. This acceptance is equally as important as integrating workplace objectives into the new layout. Change management plays a vital role in the successful implementation of a workplace redesign. Change management strategies and techniques direct employee engagement and communication efforts and address the new way work gets done in open work environments.

Workplace Strategy

The first step in any change adoption effort is to understand why the change must happen. In the current economy, information changes constantly and knowledge sharing has become increasingly important.  Apparent obstacles are slow communication by decision makers and the lack of accessibility to colleagues and their management team. Easy communication is one of the biggest benefits of opting for an open layout office space. Not only does this type of work environment encourage better communication and team spirit, but employees will have the freedom to bounce ideas off of each other, ask for assistance, and establish relationships with their colleagues. Fluid communication is more likely to flow through an open room, than segmented private offices[2].

Companies have discovered that the best way to combat this is to increase opportunities for collaboration.  Open workplaces actively support collaboration by providing multiple connection zones and opportunities for dialogue.

Collaboration has become a key workplace strategy in many successful companies today, strengthening the case for a new workplace that supports knowledge sharing and teamwork. Private offices are less common, moving from the perimeters of buildings into the core and often utilizing glass walls to encourage the open feel and accessibility of the management team. Workplace is no longer a reflection of title; the workplace today is a tool to get your job done. Particular attention is being paid to the necessity of a customizable space and the need for privacy based on job function.

An additional area of interest presently is in specific job requirements for collaborative or more focused independent work. Work occurs in a broad range of locations including outside community (12%), within your community (12%), on campus (6%), in the building (17%), and in your primary workspace (53%).  Multiple studies across industries show individual workspaces at 40% average utilization [3] (Figure 2).  Companies are considering new ways of working that will increase efficiency and productivity, and also reduce the need for underutilized office space. “Most companies have already come around to seeing that flexibility is important for recruitment and retention of employees: 63 percent of employers already allow ‘‘some’’ employees to work from home on an occasional basis, according to one major study, up from only 34 percent as recently as 2005 [4].”


Figure 1: Work now occurs in a broad range of locations

Probably the most widely known reason for a space reduction is to decrease commercial real estate costs.  Companies are assessing their spatial needs frugally and deciding what best supports their business objectives. Many express a need for multifunctional spaces. A recent client used their existing space in a new and innovative way – accommodating 1200 people instead of the 750 who were previously working there. The space “just feels good”, serving as a magnet for more employees. The intent was to use the revitalized space primarily for collaborative work and improving employee interaction - harnessing creativity, inspiration, and innovative collaboration. At a minimum, the redefinition of space and the redefinition of work methods require strategic change management. 

Role of Change Management

There is no question that change is disruptive. The amount of disruption mirrors the change management effort required. Although not everyone has a negative reaction to change, the innate reaction is to resist change. Employees do not want to feel isolated.They seek connection and understanding from their peers. This is not necessarily a negative consequence and in fact, can create an employee bond as they go through the change together.

Employees can spend more time with their coworkers than they do with their families and, spend more time in the workplace than at home. Immediate concerns and questions, even about what may appear to be trivial, will surface as news of impending changes gets shared. Depending on the scale of change, employees may become very attached to otherwise minor things as part of their resistance to change.   

Initially, a phenomenon may take place as those with strong resistance to the change will recruit others with similar emotions and those that embrace the change will gravitate toward others who are also excited about the change. These two teams may have members who switch from one side to the other over the course of the transition. Good change management will result in more supporters than resistors.  In one client’s experience, employees were upset to hear that coffee would be available in kitchens / town centers on every other floor. This new change was going to require a behavioral change for the employees, but what they didn’t see was the hidden gains. Incentivizing vertical collaboration created impromptu collisions. What was initially perceived as a horrible idea, has turned out to be an accelerator for innovation. 

Resistance to Open Environments

In the move to an open layout, the most commonly heard resistance points are noise and privacy. A common fear is that a more open workplace will be loud. Once the employees move to the new space, it is interesting how small this issue becomes. Over several months, 145 people toured an occupied open workspace. Before walking through the space, visitors were asked what they anticipated the noise level to be.  After they toured the space, they were given the same survey. There was a 32% decrease from anticipated to the noise level experienced during the tour (Figure 3). An important step in managing the change to an open layout is developing realistic noise expectations and supporting behavioral adjustments to ease the transition. 

The lack of privacy in a collaborative environment is another large concern. Even resistant managers will lead with questions about how they will work with confidential materials or have a private meeting with their team. All of these are common realistic concerns that need to be addressed as a whole and, in some cases, on an individual basis. The change management strategy for an organization can drive employee discoveries about how to function in a space with less privacy and how to achieve privacy in an open plan.


When Your Walls Come Down_Figure 2.jpg
Figure 3.  Perception of noise level before and after touring an open work environment

Culture by Generation

Although individual perspectives are unique, generational views about an open plan are interestingly skewed. Millenials (1983-1994) and Generation X (1965-1982) appear to adapt to the open plan more easily than the Baby Boomer generation (1946-1964) (Figure 4). Perhaps, the switch from a closed office to an open layout is more difficult when employees have been in the workforce longer and associate a private closed office with a position of authority or status.


Figure 4.  Generational differences in acceptance of open work environment

Younger generations often enter the workforce in open environments and may be unfamiliar with closed office workspace. On a recent client project, employees with less than three years at the organization reported an increase in collaboration, pride and flexibility. Typically, younger generations enjoy the openness of the space and the ability to get answers faster. This is a product of their environment. For example, Millenials grew up with text messaging and social networking.  In the workforce, young employees have shared that the immediate exchange of information in open plans allows them to be more productive and reduces the learning curve substantially. In one project, a Millenial employee worked in a closed, private office environment for six months before the company made a change to a new, open workspace.  She found that she learned more in the recent six months than she could have learned in one year at her former space. Millenials thrive in open, collaborative environments and the workplace design solution should reflect the future workforce (Figure 5).

At times, generational differences can be extreme. Because of these potential variants, it is imperative to investigate the perspective of the audience and manage the overall change and its effects accordingly.



Figure 5.  Multi-generational and multi-cultural workforce

Engage the Team

After determining common resistance points in workplace redesigns, it is important to direct change management strategies to combat resistance before it occurs and throughout the project. 

When embarking on any organizational change, a key step is to engage employees as early as possible in the process. Engagement can easily determine the success of the project as a whole and the rate of employee adoption to the change. In a client survey, 92% of future occupants agreed that when change happens they want to be involved in the process. Involvement make employees feel like they are influencing the change and can also create more support for the change and initiate peer communication.

In the planning stage, the change management specialists enlist a small group of executives in a session that explains the workplace change and the role of change management in the process. This step initiates the appointment of a change management team within the organization. The team is comprised of sponsors, leaders, and change agents (Figure 6).


Sponsors are members of senior leadership.  Sponsors should actively and openly support the workplace change. According to Prosci’s 2016 benchmarking studies, sponsorship remains the most important contributor to a successful change project for the last eighteen years. People affected by the change want to hear the reasons for the change from the senior leadership in the organization. The authority this team represents is crucial to the success of the project.  

Ideally, the sponsors of the change are also experiencing change themselves and will be directly affected.  They should be engaged throughout the course of the project’s completion. Sponsors must fully understand the importance of change management and align a strong team to fill these vital roles. In addition, they should be prepared to be the initial voice of the change, and manage resistance along the way.  As the first communicators of the change, it is exceedingly important that they deliver the reasons for the change and the details of the change itself in an honest and clear manner. Sponsor feelings about the change will trickle down to all levels of the organization.


Leaders work closely with the people most affected by the change. This group is extremely important in delivering the key messages to their employees and managing the resistance. Enthusiasm carries over to employees. Although employees want to hear the initial change message from the Sponsors, they want to hear the details of how the change affects them personally from Leadership. The format for communication is different, and should incorporate more face to face, small group or one-on-one communication. As with the Sponsors, Leaders should understand and support the change. They should communicate directly to their team as much as possible, and act as an informational resource and liaison between the Sponsors and the Change Agents. They should begin to identify the common resistance points and manage them immediately.

Change Agents

The team of Change Agents is made up of front line employees. They are the largest group within the change team and will gather the details that are communicated to the rest of the organization. This group is significantly important; they will be your experts in specialized areas and are likely to be a diverse group of employees – with personal relationships to the wider audience, and with different opinions about the change itself. Their commitment to the project and the development of resources is vital to the success of the change management process. This team will communicate the reasons for the workplace change to their peers, a mandatory step in change management benchmarking. Change agents should have a particular interest in a specialized area of the workplace change (i.e. furniture, technology, office etiquette); this level of interest will further engage them in the workplace change process.  As they take ownership of the change, they are more apt to be champions for the project as a whole.

With careful and considerate change efforts, all employees regardless of job function will receive verbal and written communication about the change. Sponsors, Leaders, and Change Agents will be messengers.



Communications Strategy

After recruiting sponsors, leaders and change agents, the next step is to create a compelling, informative, multi dimensional communication strategy. Communications should be delivered in various ways consistently throughout the project. Often, what appears to be resistance is really a missed or unclear communication. 

The initial communication about a significant workplace redesign should be in written form. In smaller organizations, the CEO or a sponsor may present the workplace change in a large forum which all employees attend. It is important to inform employees of the change before any public messages are released. Employees feel undervalued when they are the last to know what is happening within their organization. When employees feel valued, they can easily become ambassadors not only for the organization as a whole, but also for the change itself.

The most effective means of communication with regards to change management efforts is face to face, open dialogue meetings. These might be Town hall meetings in which a fairly large group of employees (50 or more) hear about the upcoming change and are offered the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback. A similar less formal option is a team meeting in which a supervisor or manager communicates the changes to his/her team (under 50). These smaller meetings are an excellent follow-up to a Town hall meeting. It is also a great opportunity to expand on the effects that the change(s) will have on a specific department and/or job function. 

A communication plan should include a timeline leading up to the completion of the workplace redesign which outlines all communication methods. The timeline should begin before the project starts and end shortly after employees move into their new space. Although various communication methods are highlighted, the change management team must consistently communicate with the organization in order to ensure a successful project outcome. They will explain the change itself, the reasons for the change, and share project updates. A well documented communication plan will drive change management efforts throughout the life of the project. 


Trends in interior architecture and design have solidified the need for enhanced focus on change management efforts. Walls were the physical boundaries which limited the new paths to productivity through collaboration. When the walls come down, you are changing the environment as well as the work patterns and behaviors of the employees.

Naturally, any change causes disruption and there will be some employee resistance. Change management can successfully manage this reaction. 

It’s been about a month since James and Elizabeth moved into the new workspace... 

Elizabeth settles into a prime spot by the window at the coffee bar. She catches up on emails while she sips her coffee. She really enjoys the conversations around the coffee bar, and the bustle of people arriving in the morning. It is so invigorating and she feels much more connected to what’s going on in the company.

As James picks up coffee on his way in, a couple of associates from another department are warming up breakfast. They are talking about a new project they are working on. James has also worked with that client. He chats with them about his experience as he gets his coffee. 

Back at his workstation, James quickly checks emails, undocks his computer and moves to a nearby collaborative room he had booked earlier in the week.  His colleague joins him and they video conference their counterpart in Scotland. James can’t help but think how productive life is in his new space.


1.     Ponsev, Adrian. (2015, Spring) “Trends in Square Feet per Office Employee” Retrieved from http://www.naiop.org/en/Magazine/2015/Spring-2015/Business-Trends/Trends-in-Square-Feet-per-Office-Employee.aspx
2.     Singh, Khiv. (2015, July) “ Pros and Cons of Open Office’s vs. Closed Office’s” Retrieved from http://sapience.net/pros-and-cons-of-open-office-s-vs-closed-office-s/
3.     O’Neill, Michael, & Wymer, Tracy. (2010) “Implementing Integrated Work to Create a Dynamic Workplace” Retrieved from https://www.knoll.com/media/909/960/WP_ImplementingIntegratedWork.pdf
4.     Dominus, Susan. (2016, February 25) “Rethinking the Work-Life Equation” Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/rethinking-the-work-life-equation.html?_r=1