With employers scrambling to update and open workplaces during an uncertain pandemic, many are looking to design experts to help manage their transitions to hybrid remote workforces. Increasingly, some organizations find, firms like Boston- and Atlanta-based Dyer Brown are positioned best to consult on the hardest part: In a nutshell, change management.

The key reason is effective communications — on everything from how to use a new workplace to employee wellness to effective transitions from online to in-person work modes, according to Dyer Brown’s Rachel Woodhouse, NCIDQ, a principal at the nationally active design firm.

Integrating change management into a workplace strategy project, such as rolling out new offices or opening a headquarters, can help achieve the best possible results for both employers and employees. Yet corporate leaders may be hesitant to outsource "internal communications" to consultants, let alone firms best known for architecture, design, branding and graphics.

“Yet that’s exactly what some of the best organizations find they need,” says Woodhouse, an expert on organizational strategy. “The managers need 100% buy-in from their teams, and integrated communications and workplace strategy can best support real estate strategy and avoid unforeseen organizational implications that can cost companies big money.” 

Examples of downsides Woodhouse lists include needing to lease additional space, loss of management-level employees, or coping with workers who feel overwhelmed by workplace transitions.

Midsize Companies and Workplace ‘Quicksand’

While large corporations and institutions tend to handle change management with in-house HR, many growing mid-level companies lack experience with workplace change scenarios. “To protect workplace investments and ensure real estate strategy over the long term, an integrated designer-strategist like Dyer Brown can troubleshoot to identify the organizational quicksand," says Woodhouse. "Thankfully, many organizations are realizing they can’t support the costs of not doing proper change-focused communications — in part because employees have more job options post-Covid, putting them in the driver's seat.”

Dyer Brown isn’t new to what experts like Woodhouse refer to as “CM." The firm is currently supporting multiple clients who added change management to the firm’s other integrated workplace services. To encourage more organizations to include workplace change consulting as part of their their real estate and workplace project delivery, Woodhouse emphasizes a few points: 

  1. Think mission and culture. Few companies will hand over all employee communications to a consultant, which Dyer Brown respects — and recommends. Instead, each employer should choose a path that supports top-level goals and aligns with organizational culture. For example, Dyer Brown worked with client QuickBase through weekly meetings to develop and implement a communications strategy, vetted announcements and organized a schedule for releasing information strategically. For nonprofit Metro Housing, the firm took a back seat and focused on low-profile needs like selecting user-experience software.
  2. Start early. As director of change management for Dyer Brown, Woodhouse believes CM is an organizational thread that needs to be addressed from the start, where possible. “We learn so much from pre-design visioning meetings and surveys, especially when the scope includes all users,” she says. "This information can be upcycled into effective communications strategy for a successful rollout.” 
  3. User experience is everything. Growing employers need to stay competitive in the labor marketplace by keeping top talent happy and productive. Providing a positive, seamless experience of the workplace is a cost-effective way to maintain an edge. For both QuickBase and Metro Housing, this meant selecting a software suite for user experience as part of change management. For QuickBase, it also meant working with leadership to ensure smooth communication with managers about major changes including marked reductions in the number of private offices.
  4. Leverage the design advantage. With Dyer Brown’s designers and consultants already focused on workplace strategy for every client, their change-oriented insights into employee needs are deeply personal. For example, creating comfortable, healthy and productive environments for workers is an understood outcome for every project, so change management is a natural extension of workplace design. 

“On top of that, we’re on the outside, essentially a disinterested party with no skin in the game,” says Woodhouse. “This means we can see the operation with fresh eyes, and we’re ideally placed to lead on transparency efforts.”

The firm’s role with corporate and institutional employers has varied widely, adds Woodhouse. For those that prefer a highly structured process, Dyer Brown delivers that. “For others, we take on an informal advisory role, or provide support like an added member of staff,” she says. "There’s a whole spectrum here.”