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Universal standards can't guarantee universal success

Posted: August 7, 2013 - 12:00am

The Parnell Administration has begun to implement new “universal space standards” for state office buildings owned and leased in Juneau and Anchorage. The program is being touted as a cost savings measure that will reduce state spending by $125 million over the next 20 years. Additionally, according to Mike Nizich, Parnell’s Chief of Staff, the universal standards will “increase employee collaboration, teambuilding, and productivity.” That’s a bold prediction that ignores a few facts. Not every office job is the same. And regardless of the work setting, there are no universal models of the human behavior and personality.

Calling the standards “universal” is rather interesting. It carries the implication that they’re being widely used. But if you do a web search for the exact phrase you’ll find that the first several pages are dominated by links to our state government’s new policy. It seems there are few other government agencies or large private businesses applying a single standard to their entire office workforce.

The reality is that for private or publicly owned real estate, there is one universal purpose behind shrinking the space occupied by office workers. It’s cutting costs. And the Parnell Administration isn’t denying this. Go to the very beginning of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document published by the Department of Administration’s Division of General Services. “The main goal,” it states, “is to lower costs through reduction of office space leases.”

Now it’s hard to argue that the state won’t save money with a smaller leased footprint. The problem is there’s no basis for Nizich’s implied guarantee that the new standards will enhance employee performance. In a letter to Jim Duncan, the executive director of the state employees union, Deputy Commissioner Brian Thatcher made similar conclusions about improvements to employee morale. On the FAQ page the administration has even dismissed studies that challenge the effectiveness of the open office space concept by declaring “real-life examples and evidence prove that the new model works and is cost-effective.”

Susan Cain studied this issue while writing her bestseller “Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” She describes how the video game company Backbone Entertainment reverted to cubicles after an unsuccessful attempt to run the business with an open office plan. And she writes that employees at the headquarters of Reebok International convinced management that peace and quiet was more important than collaboration, so the company elected not to use an open office design.

Cain’s book is primarily about how our society undervalues the contributions of people with introverted personalities. They are people who don’t seek to be in the spotlight and are usually most creative and productive when working in quiet, private settings. According to Cain’s research, between one-third and one-half of all Americans fall on the introverted side of the personality spectrum. And many studies have shown “the most effective teams are comprised of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts.”

Of course it’s not practical to design working environments around individual personalities. But regardless of how efficient the new standards appear to be, it’s equally unrealistic for state officials to claim the new standards are sure to improve employee morale and increase productivity. The only thing that might be certain is the state will reduce the square footage of the office space it leases and save a whopping 0.05 percent of its annual budget.

The administration should have made a serious examination of the research which disagreed with their conclusions. They may have benefited from having a few psychologists on the team that produced the Space Standards Report instead of relying solely on a team of architects and interior designers. And they would have been wise to evaluate a pilot project over the course of a few years before implementing the program.

Rather than take an open-minded approach though, Governor Parnell and his political appointees are moving forward with total confidence. They’re advertising the before and after photos of the new digs on the seventh floor of the State Office Building as proof of a job well done. But sleek appearances can’t mask that the recommendations from the Space Standards Report were probably predetermined to fit their political agenda to reduce the size of government.

Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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