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August 05, 2009

Movin' On Up—or At Least Out

Blog cartoon 8-12-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

When a company moves, it isn't always  like "The Jeffersons" TV show. The next place the company establishes itself often doesn't have anything to do with "movin' on up."  Rather, it's frequently the result of a need to downsize space after downsizing its workforce. To make matters worse, the move to a smaller space often is worsened by the location of the new office. Money being in short supply nowadays, employees who once enjoyed working in a cute, trendy, and safe neighborhood are likely to find their new work environment housed in a "developing" or "gentrifying" part of town—meaning if you're a petite female, it might be a good idea to have someone walk you to your car after sundown.

Employees also may find their enjoyable 10 to 20 minute commute to the office ratcheted up to a tidy one to two hours. And then once there—having endured the interminable commute and walk into the office through a sketchy neighborhood—they find their spacious cubicle, or maybe even office, transformed into a cubby akin to the spaces they keep stray cats in at the animal shelter. Indeed, instead of being at work, the worn out employee feels like he is in a workforce orphanage.

The picture of recessionary business relocation I paint is melodramatic, but those who have been through it will admit I'm (at least a little) right. The most astonishing part of the whole ordeal is the assumption employers make that employees will adjust. In this economy, as I've previously written, corporations have captive audiences of workers, but staying on the job (enduring the new commute, borderline frightening neighborhood, and uncomfortable work station), doesn't translate into productivity. What if the move you embarked on to save money does nothing more than move your workers from satisfactory performance to sub-par, just-here-to-pick-up-a-paycheck status?

Before you decide to relocate to reduce overhead, consider what's happening inside your workers heads. My source for this week's Inside Training Business Intelligence column, relocation management firm Cartus, says it might be a good idea to do an employee needs assessment prior to the move. I'll take it one step further and suggest conducting the needs assessment before you even make the decision to move. You may not be able to avoid leaving an office whose rent you no longer can afford, but you can (and should) use your employees' advice when deciding where to move to.

One way you could benefit from their wisdom is by establishing an employee relocation commission or board, a group of maybe a dozen workers from a wide cross-section of levels and job roles, to visit possible new work sites, and let you know [candidly] what they think. To fully unleash them, you might even offer a prize for the person on the board who is able to come up with the longest list of drawbacks at each potential location. Emphasizing the positive usually is the best policy, but not when considering real estate. It's awful enough to move into an apartment in which you discover the door to the refrigerator can't be opened without stepping into the bathroom (a real estate agent showed me an apartment like that a few years ago), but it's doubly awful to commit your business, and hundreds of your workers, to a space they (and you) won't be able to work in long-term.

Once the place is secured, make the most of it by asking the same, or a different board of, employees to work with your human resources and facilities planners in laying out the cubicles and other work spaces, and deciding the policy on who gets the few offices available. Maybe they'll suggest that nobody gets an office, and that the offices be used as additional meeting spaces and "quite time" rooms—at anybody's disposal as long as they're reserved ahead of time. You never know what those kooky employees of yours will come up with.

The big thing to remember when making a hasty move into more modest work quarters is, as I mentioned in my last blog, that some say the economy will eventually rebound. So, in addition to running the risk of making a short-sighted move, you might end up encouraging valued employees to depart from your payroll the first chance they get.

It's one thing if you're commuting an hour to a job where the office includes swimming pools, reflection pools, wading streams, artificial lakes where you can fish, and other superfluous, though fun, man-made bodies of water. But quite another if you've been asked to commute extra long distances to arrive at a place consisting of no superfluous pleasures, a great deal of mandatory drudgery, and some gratis suffering.

If you were to move your business tomorrow, what kind of location and space do you imagine your employees would find tolerable?  How would you prepare them for it so they stay happy and productive?  Any tips to pass along?

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