Creating a more vibrant work space: Ten tips to revitalize your nonprofit office

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While there are many ways to distinguish between the nonprofit and the for-profit sector, often it only takes walking into an organization’s office to know whether it’s a nonprofit. Here are two stories that illustrate the typical divide:

“Everyone seems to have some sort of crappy chair story,” writes Vu Le on his blog. “The ancient, rickety chair held together with duct tape is not just a funny experience to bond over, it’s a point of pride for many of us...Many of us in this sector take pride in our ability to accomplish amazing things for our community while having some of fewest and lowest-quality resources. We also take pride in not ‘wasting’ funding, keeping our ‘overhead’ low, and showing donors and funders that we are ‘responsible’ stewards of the work.”

By contrast, a recent article ranked the best of Google’s offices around the world, noting that “the Google employees of the world are zooming around on scooters, slipping down tube slides, playing on their indoor putting greens, and gloating about the awesomeness of their offices” As one Google spokesperson told the New York Times, designers of Google offices have one goal: “to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world.”

We wondered whether this was one area of work where the divide wasn’t entirely necessary. While we were fairly sure that few nonprofits would (or should) install slides, we took this opportunity to speak with nonprofits who share the belief that the space in which we work matters to the work we do.

Workspace connects with mission

While nonprofits prioritize spending on mission-related expenses, many organizations are recognizing that, just as with the overhead myth around salaries, so it is a fallacy that workspace is disconnected from mission.

For some organizations, this is because their space is a key component of their mission. Lindsay Restagno, director of operations, St. Paul’s University College, University of Waterloo, whose college recently completed an expansion project, says, “Our place is integral to our service. This is a community where students need to feel comfortable and have a sense of home. If we have rundown facilities, students won’t want to live here. Our physical environment is a definite element in how we deliver our mission.”

Similarly, Sarah Heynen, chief operating officer, for Toronto’s Evergreen says, “Our mission is rooted in the connection between people, natural and built worlds. When these coexist in healthy interactions, we flourish. How we use our space is very much rooted in our mission.” Heynen adds, “As an organization devoted to sustainability we are big supporters of the re-use economy – whether that is someone who buys chairs for an event they are doing, and donates them to us at the end of the event, or the outdoor tables our CEO found on Kijiji.”

The United Way of Fort McMurray built their Redpoll Centre as a space to bring diverse agencies together in order to strengthen the sector. They say, “The Redpoll Centre has truly blossomed into a community hub. Over and above the regular activity generated by the tenants, many other individuals and organizations are utilizing meeting rooms and common space...to have meetings, attend workshops and special events.”

Workspace connects with productivity and morale

An even stronger case can be made for the role of workspace on employee productivity. Heynen admits, “We have our graveyard of broken chairs too, but we have recognized it takes its toll on workplace morale.”

Jacqueline C. Vischer of the University of Montreal’s School of Industrial Design has written extensively on workplace design and productivity. “Space, buildings, and architecture are not the first things a company thinks about when it is ‘transforming work.’ Yet changes to space and time are basic to evolving concepts of what work means. A company does not need to pay for uncomfortable work space that slows work down, makes change difficult, or is less than optimal for work performance.” She adds that cost-cutting measures that reduce overhead “are actually counterproductive in increasing employee effectiveness.”

Sushil Saini, executive director of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, BC and Yukon Division is passionate about creating nurturing and professional workspaces that are energizing to work in. Saini, who spent years working as a consultant, began identifying why some offices worked better than others. She says, “Beyond the factors of resources, staff and leadership, it became clear to me that in the offices that were pleasant places to work, people acted more professionally, felt better about coming to work, and took more pride in their work.”

When Saini stepped into her current role, she says, “Literally one of the first things I did was to reorganize and redecorate the office.” She adds, “A lot of us in the nonprofit sector do uncomfortable work, and so it is really important to respect people as professionals and to create workspaces they feel good in and that clients feel good in. People need to have vibrant places they feel comfortable in.”

Restagno agrees. “Nonprofit staff tend to put in long hours and sacrifice economic wealth to work in the sector, because they are committed and passionate. If you want to keep them energized, make them feel they are cared for and consider the value of their office experience.”

Paying attention to creating a good workspace can even be an issue of retention, especially in a world where the alternatives in the private sector offer slides and swings. A recent article says that creating workspaces with playful elements “can offset the stresses of everyday work which can combat absenteeism and increase the overall mood and productivity of the workplace” as well as “helping retain talent and attract new employees”.

As for why nonprofits fail to see the value of workspace, Saini says it is a “poverty mentality which can be turned around.”

Speaking of money…this costs money

Like most things in the nonprofit sector, the rationale behind broken office chairs and an ugly workspace is often a fiscal one. As Restagno says, “If you have limited resources, you have to be really mindful about spending money.”

Nonprofit office designers Service West put it like this: “Frivolous decorations and expensive doodads will create a more appealing interior space, but it may make your donors question where their money is going. High overhead isn’t just a drain on your precious resources, it’s also likely to drive away future donors who will assume their money will be better spent elsewhere.”

But, they add, “The flipside is also true: if you design an interior that’s too austere, your employees are likely to find a new place to do their good works. The key, which is the case with all office design, is to design an experience that fits (without exceeding) your needs.” Heynen agrees. “All dollars are precious but there is value to be put on a workplace that is attentive to the intangible needs of its workforce.”

According to Clark Kellogg, a professor of design thinking at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, “It’s a fallacy that spending money on the where and the who is a bad thing...We’re all so skittish about the funders. But what funders and bosses are looking for are courageous, well-articulated solutions, and we’re too afraid to make that happen.”

In terms of articulating solutions, Restagno says, “When we make decisions, we use a variety of filters: how are we being appropriate stewards of the money we have? Are we adding value related to our mission? Will this make students happier with our services, and ultimately have them refer us to others?” She adds, “We are really diligent about what we buy. We also always consider the lifetime costs of a decision, and we’ve learned the value of buying good quality items so that we aren’t being penny wise, pound foolish.”

Restagno also cautions nonprofits about deferring maintenance. She says, “If you own your place, be careful not to get into a deferred maintenance situation where your building falls apart. If you are renting, there may be an opportunity to call on your landlord to keep the place in repair when you are negotiating a lease. You also might find ways to enroll your landlord in your mission, finding ways that they can contribute to your space in ways that add value to your organization.”

Ten steps to a better workspace

1. Clutter and clean. It may not be a sexy solution but it’s also not an expensive one. “Don’t underestimate the value of regular office clutter cleanup,” says Heynen. “Walking into a workplace that is disorganized and cluttered sends a certain message to employees and visitors alike. Take time to regularly streamline the visual clutter.”

Restagno adds, “Is it clean? What is the odour of the office?” An article about inexpensive office design reminds us, “It's natural to obsess about how things look, but don't neglect another important sense — changing how your office smells can also make it a much nicer place to be at basically no cost.” And this can go beyond pleasantness: research by a Japanese corporation found that typists made 54% fewer errors when they could smell lemon.

2. Let there be light. Studies as well as anecdotal experience clearly show that “both natural and artificial light is very essential in any office environment.” Washington DC-based charity Results for Development chose not to use their windowed space for management offices but instead as a conference room, space for meals and parties.

Restagno, who developed a sleep disorder after spending a year in an office without natural light, recommends, “If employees can’t work in spaces with natural light, think about how to support them, whether with daylight replacement lamps or regular opportunities to work in naturally lit spaces.”

3. Go green. “My number one recommendation for improving your office space is plants,” says Saini. “They don’t have to be expensive – we have adopted plants from neighbouring offices or from garage sales and clippings. People don’t always notice what makes our office beautiful but if we remove the plants to repot them or to reorganize, people miss them.” Heynen adds, “Research is unequivocal about the value of plants: they purify the air, they contribute to physical and mental well-being, they involve a shared sense of stewardship that builds community.”

4. Paint. Painting your space is one of the most cost-effective ways of enhancing your workspace, especially if you use Saini’s tip of buying off-tinted paints — rather than choosing a $100 can of paint and having it tinted for you, for about $5, you can buy a can of pretinted paint.

Saini also recommends painting one accent wall in a colour that fits the mood of the room or the preference of the staff member, while painting the other walls white or off-white. She also notes that painting covers scuff marks and gives a sense of freshness to an office.

At Evergreen, some walls are painted with chalkboard paint, on which staff create colourful, dynamic visuals that include inspirational quotes, program information, etc., which can easily be refreshed with the swipe of a wet cloth.

5. Art works. Many of the people we talked with bemoaned the tendency toward cheap or ugly art used in nonprofits, simply to cover walls — or the lack of art altogether, under the belief that art needs to be expensive.

Last summer, Evergreen gave an intern the task of framing and hanging posters that had accumulated over time. “The amount of positive feedback that the art generated has been significant,” says Heynen. “It’s a welcome sight to get off an elevator and see a previously bare wall now covered with art.”

Many organizations are decorating with gratitude walls, whether they are simply Post-It notes of gratitude by staff, volunteers and clients, or more formally, as in the case of PETA, whose Los Angeles office features a two-storey wall painted in black with the names of each donor written in white.

Art doesn’t have to hang on walls either: it can include bright textiles, furniture made from repurposed items, jars of colourful candy or healthy treats, or seasonal decorations.

6. Let necessity drive innovation. “When we were building our facility,” says Heynen, “we brought a shipping container onsite because we wanted to create a welcome centre in the construction zone and we didn’t have an occupancy permit for the building. After we moved into our building, we turned it into a programming space.”

Because Saini’s office is growing, they recently repurposed a storage room into an office. They also let office neighbours know that they would be happy to take any unwanted furniture off their hands — and recently received four beautiful wooden desks from a company that no longer needed them.

7. Involve staff. Vischer writes, “Encouraging employees to take some responsibility for space-planning decisions in a managed process, rather than simply asking them what they want, increases employee empowerment and makes managers aware of the interaction between space and human behavior.”

While Saini takes responsibility for the overall vision of the office environment, her employees have permission to decorate their own space as they see fit. The overhaul of their office space was a consultative process where all staff were involved in decision-making. Heynen adds, “In an exit interview, there should be a question about workplace design and any reflections people have as they are leaving. If a pattern emerges, it gives evidence to build a case for change to the board.”

8. Mix it up. While 70% of US offices are open concept, this recent innovation now is being rethought. What is increasingly clear is that a diversity of spaces is more productive, with spaces tailored for specific tasks. Heynen observes, “We encourage people to self-identify what environment they need to work in. We have various options of seating arrangements – little tables and chairs, low armchairs, a kitchen that can be booked. These allow for different kinds of dynamics.”

If an organization is thinking about redesigning its space to suit the needs of its employees, Kate McCoubrey Judson, a senior strategist at SYPartners, an organizational consulting firm, suggests a simple, cost-effective way is for staff members to create a Google doc, recording what they’re doing and where they are three times per day for a week. This creates a heat map of how the office is used, and what kinds of spaces are most popular for what purposes.

Sometimes the best space isn’t even in your office. Hynen says, “We can encourage people to meet outside or to make it a walking meeting – not just designing their working environment but thinking creatively about the scope of working environment.”

9. Set aside funds. St. Paul’s University College had deferred maintenance over decades but were able to get their building up to date and, says Restagno, to declare they won’t get into that situation again. They now schedule upgrades and repairs, as well as look at priorities for capital improvement, as well as setting aside money for emergency repairs.

10. Start where you are. “You don’t have to do it all at once,” encourages Saini. “Figure out what you can change affordably and start there. Use your entrepreneurial skills when it comes to creating a space that supports your team and clients.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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