Small changes in design and technology cause big boosts in productivity and creativity

Most small businesses, including franchises, are usually so busy concentrating on running their businesses that they don't realize the toll it is taking on their technology and environment. With limited staff and hours in the day, these businesses tend to grow organically without a specific design or technology plan. Yet these play an important role in how productive a business can be.

Those franchisors who don't dictate every design feature for their franchisees, or whose franchisees create their own office environment, probably don't think much about the efficiencies that an integrated design can create. Like the cobbler whose kids go shoeless, franchisees tend to give themselves the worst of everything. I'm here to tell you that it's counterproductive, and franchisors should encourage their franchisees to take some time and look at their workspaces--especially if the public sees those spaces as well.

In the beginning

My wife Kathy and I started the Mad Science of Scottsdale franchise out of our home four years ago. An international franchise, Mad Science provides children's science through fun, hands-on experiments at schools, birthday parties, summer camps, and more.

After two years of working out of our home, we moved into an office building where our business started to take off and grow around us--literally.

In lieu of file cabinets, we stacked piles of papers around the perimeters of our three-room office space. Furniture was a mix of donated items, pieces from home, and things from the dumpster.

And our technology was not working for us, but against us. Our inkjet printers were very expensive to maintain, and aside from phones and e-mail, our means to communication with the outside world included a frustrating and time-consuming 12-year-old thermal fax machine.

We spent hours each week driving back and forth to the local copy shop producing course materials, handouts, registration forms, instruction sheets, and promotional flyers, only to wait for things to be completed or corrected when there was an error.

The issues we were facing are typical of many growing businesses.

No one could tell us we weren't colorful. We were "above average" in that department with more than three colors on the walls in each of the workrooms. Blue, green, purple, lavender, yellow, and white in a bright combo meal! There was even a lightning-shaped brush stroke adorning the main wall of our front office. Unfortunately, what seemed like a good idea at the time ended up looking unprofessional.

Like the house painter who is too busy to paint his own house, we quickly realized our office was a science experiment gone wrong.

With three full-time office workers and 12 science instructors (known as "Mad Scientists") to support, we did have a system, but it was flawed and required a lot of time and to make it work.

My priorities were to keep the business running while meeting with potential customers and selling our services. I knew that operationally our business could be better but wasn't sure how to change it and didn't think I even had the time.

Make me over

We were fortunate to have help in our quest for productivity, as we were selected as the grand prize winner in Xerox Corp.'s "Help! My Office is Obsolete!" office makeover contest. We received a complete transformation, including new document technology from Xerox, office from The HON Company, and design services from Thom Filicia, interior design specialist on the Emmy Award-winning show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

The makeover turned out to be such a catalyst for growth for our business, catapulting our notoriety in the community, streamlining our work processes, empowering us with technology, and enabling us to purchase a second franchise territory--doubling our business!

For the first time, we were comfortable in our space. We were even proud of it, and started to invite potential customers--parents and principals alike--to our office. We even hosted a local Chamber of Commerce event here.

Now, everyone who walks in immediately gets a sense of the type of business and people we are.

One size does not fit all

Finding the right technology and understanding how to make the right changes in your environment--whether it is the color of the walls, type of lighting, or line of furniture--all play a role in how productive a business can be.

Throughout the makeover process, we learned a lot about this and have the following advice to share with other franchise owners.

Twenty years ago, I would have been overjoyed just to have access to my own personal computer. Nowadays, workers have the means to get their work done more productively, but the rubber stamp "cubicleland" environment does not always provide the privacy and flexibility needed to accomplish quality work.

The work environment has a direct and positive impact on the effectiveness of office workers, so design and technology should be used to build a more efficient environment, rather than act as barriers to success.

Your office is more than just a backdrop to the work taking place. It's a primary contributor to the success of your business. Proactively managing the physical layout and the implementation of needed technology will help support organizational goals and attract better employees.

People can work anywhere; however they're more inclined to want to work together. Different settings with different features allow people to work the way they need to. It's important to have individual workspaces, as well as shared home bases, group spaces, up-to-date technology, networks, and environmental control.

Instead of each person having their own all-purpose workstation, fax, computer, printer, storage, and perhaps a small meeting area, each of these things is located interdependently.

In addition to public spaces like libraries, conference rooms, shared storage, a kitchen, and shared equipment space, private spaces should be provided within an organization for employees to separate themselves from their work group when needed.

Depending on your type of business, number of employees, office space, and work habitats, your design and technology needs will vary.

Design of the times

When approaching the design of an office, ask yourself these questions:
  • Is this space for an individual or for a group?
  • Is this a dedicated or shared space?
  • Is this space open or closed?

Bottom line: What is the space used for?

A balanced combination of areas meeting the different space requirements of the organization is necessary to enhance employee creativity, individual performance, and foster teamwork.

Admittedly, what can be done in terms of design is directly related to the available resources and how much can be invested to make the improvements. However, if you understand the people and information flow of the business, you are well on your way to understanding how to create maximum efficiency.

Even the most minor and affordable changes can make a difference.

It worked for us, it can work for you!

Personalize your space: Making your space a reflection of you and your business is one of the most important things you can do. Consider the type of business, the work you do, the things you love, and the area you're working in.

In our new office, bamboo wallpaper reflects our love of nature and the fun-loving spirit of our business. And, since I've been surfing since I can remember, black-and-white ocean scenes are matted, framed and hung on the wall. The carpet even includes earthy blue, green, and tan tones, making the space very warm and inviting, like our Arizona surroundings. Plus, nature posters on the walls now draw the attention of young scientists, correlating with what we teach.

A Taste of Home: If you're like many small-business and franchise owners, you spend a lot of time at the office. Strike a balance between comfortable and professional. Whenever possible, add a common area with comfortable furniture like couches or bean bag chairs. Provide spaces for impromptu meetings, casual conversations, or just to relax. Mix traditional office furnishings with those more "homey" touches and personalize.

Our entry room includes two big-armed chairs with fluffy cushions, a table with fun magazines, and a bowl of peanut M&Ms. Use pillows and curtains to soften the space. And try baskets in lieu of boxes to hold supplies. In our office, the baskets hold scientific toys like rockets--they're decorative and useful at the same time.

Color Crusade: Use color to set mood and tone. Paint is one of the most inexpensive things you can do to give your office space a lift! For added interest, try textured paints, glosses, and other special effects. Also, research the meaning of colors: yellow produces a warming effect, stimulates mental activity, and generates energy; blue produces a calming effect and is associated with depth and stability. In our case, we toned down our too brightly colored walls with more subdued, deeper tones, and added artwork to relay our enthusiastic spirit.

Space, the Final Frontier: Develop individual and group spaces around how you actually work. Talk with employees about their daily tasks, the time they need to be working alone, and in what cases they need to collaborate as a group. Also include additional workspace to use as you grow. As a part of our makeover, a partition wall was built in our main office to create two usable workspaces, doubling the capacity of that room.

Light It Up: Try not to rely solely on the fluorescent overhanging ceiling lights. Lighting should be warm. Try a fun desk lamp (ours have multi-colored stripes and mini shades) to add soft lighting, which can be easier on your eyes, especially when working after dark.

Vive la Vie (Celebrate Life): Bring life into your space with actual living things. We have plants--even including a cactus--to give a sense of our Southwestern region. Fish in clear glass bowls or vases are also fun. Our fish's name is Thom (after our designer).

Lose the Cube: When most people think of a professional office, they think grey cubicles and white walls. Don't be limited to what's perceived as the norm. Talk to companies in your area that have lost the cubicle walls and are performing in a more open environment condusive to brainstorming, collaboration, and overall creativity.

Put Your Feet Up: When looking to purchase or upgrade your look for pieces with clean lines, as they will make your rooms seem bigger. Many of the more modern furniture lines also come on wheels, making them and flexible. And, if you can--plan ahead. Making updates in your environment may indicate you are in a growth mode. Plan ahead for new employees by dedicating space and purchasing furniture to accommodate.

Every Vote Counts: Talk to your employees. Making them part of the process can lead to increased employee satisfaction. You could have an office pool to guess what the paint color will be, or even have them vote on which fabric swatch should be on the chairs.

Seek Professional Help: If all else fails, seek professional help! If your budget allows you to hire an outside resource (i.e., interior designer, furniture vendor), research companies in your area and work with someone with expertise in outfitting small businesses. They often know about making sure you're receiving all of the right warranties and know of some of the best places to shop.

Putting it all together

The most important thing to do is to use your imagination. Start small by your walls, bringing in plants, or researching color printers. And if budget allows, scale up!

Creating an office environment that supports the way people and teams actually work should be viewed as an opportunity and not a challenge. If successful at finding the right balance between design and technology, people, and work groups can increase productivity, worker performance and collaboration.

Jack Hamlett is co-owner, Mad Science of Scottsdale and East Valley Franchises in Arizona.

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