Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lesson #55: Creating a Healthy Office Environment

Back in Lesson #13, we talked about Creating The Right Culture For Your Startup.  In that lesson we talked about different management styles, communications styles and maintaining the proper work-life balance for your employees, to help build morale amongst your team.  Directly related to building morale is your office environment itself.  Nothing can dampen morale faster, than working in an uninviting or dysfunctional workplace.

We have all been inside exciting workplaces, where everybody is feeding off the energy of everyone else in the office.  You get this vibe inside offices like Google, YouTube and Groupon.  These are typically more open floor plans, without high cubicles, without a lot of private offices, where you can see and hear all of the action and buzz of the staff engaging amongst themselves.  These are places where employees are pumped up to come to work each day.  So, it is not coincidental really great startup companies, also have really inviting work spaces, which help them to attract and retain great employees.

We have also all been inside workplaces that are better defined as a "morgue".  These office spaces are typically not well-lit (or lacking windows), where employees are buried in their private offices or behind high cubicles and you can often hear a pin drop in the office.  No employee conversations, no music, no energy at all.  This kind of office space is a recipe for disaster for a startup, as employees will only deal with that type of environment for so long, before they will go stir crazy.  Especially "A-type" personalities that want to get involved with exciting startups.

Now, I am not saying startups need to go spend a ton of money on fancy desks and office build-outs, as that would be foolish.  What I am saying is: (i) locate your office in fun neighborhoods, with good local conveniences that are easy to commute to; (ii) prioritize "edgy" loft buildings with high ceilings over cookie-cutter high rise office spaces; (iii) set up workstations (or folding tables) without high cubicles which shut off employees from each other (impeding upon open collaboration and communication); (iv) make sure there is a good vibe in the office, with background music or otherwise; and (v) set up a room with a TV, video game player or ping pong table where employees can blow off steam, when putting in the long hours (provided these luxuries do not get in the way of their doing their jobs). 

If you can find pre-furnished, pre-wired or previously built-out space, that is the best alternative to keeping your furniture, build-out and rental costs at a minimum.  And, if you need furniture or equipment, look for vendors of used furniture to save you a lot of money compared to full retail prices for new furniture or equipment.  And, I wasn't joking about considering folding tables.  iExplore bought all of its first desks at $19 per folding table to stretch our startup budget.

I was in the office the other day of a company trying to reposition itself as a high-flying dot com startup in a major turnaround story.  And, my immediate reaction was, "not until you break down these walls and infuse more energy into this space".  Morale was bad enough, with the company trying to recover lost sales and get the business back to profitability.  Yet alone, layer on the additional negative vibe of employees feeling like they were coming to the "morgue" each day. 

Little things like this can really matter to employees, especially with lots of other startups out there for them to choose from.  And, sometimes, your office environment can be the difference between "high flying" and "six feet under".

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