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Cubicle cops become bad guys without context

Michelle Hicks WEBA friend of mine recently shared a story about a trend in some of the emails coming from her office manager. For the last nine months, Frankie, whom she describes as one of the most likable, friendly and helpful office managers you could hope to work with, has started to sound kind of militant about tidiness.

It all started with weekly memos about common areas. You see, my friend’s office started going green. Styrofoam cups and plates and plastic utensils were going away, and new policies and procedures were being implemented to make sure the break room dishwasher was filled and emptied every day.

Then, a few months later, the focus turned to cubicles. Frankie would send out a friendly note about the importance of having clean workspaces and encouraging everyone to tidy up. Frankie would send out more urgent notes if corporate big wigs or key clients were going to visit the offices on a particular day. Finally, about a month ago, he actually started walking around the office identifying who was out of compliance and scheduled an Outlook appointment on everyone’s calendars. It was a deadline to ensure that the last remaining holdouts got their clean on.

At this point, my friend said she couldn’t help but ask Frankie why he went from friendly office manager to cubicle cop. Fortunately, they have a good relationship, and he laughed and said he was following a new, corporate directive – the 5S Club – and sent her a copy of an article about it in the Wall Street Journal.

It appears Frankie isn’t the only office manager with a new “keep it clean” role in America. A movement is underway to follow the 5 S’s: sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain. Companies such as Kyocera, Toro and others are taking a lean manufacturing technique from the production floor to cube land in an effort to make “the office” more productive.

While the concept makes sense, hearing how it was implemented leaves the impression that my friend and her colleagues were left wanting a clearer explanation. You could also tell from her description that for many, Frankie went from being a good guy to now being someone to steer clear of, for fear he might ask employees to wipe up the coffee rings next to their key boards.

My assessment is that the implementation lacked a thoughtful communication plan to help employees understand and adapt to the new expectations. In a work situation, any kind of directive that affects personal habits is most efficiently rolled out when it is shared, explained and enforced by an employee’s immediate supervisor. That means the office leader needs to first gain buy-in from his leadership team before taking it to the rest of the staff.

This organization’s approach of putting a nice guy without authority in charge only put Frankie in an awkward situation with his colleagues. Besides, a person who is out of compliance isn’t going to change his behavior just because Frankie said so if his boss doesn’t enforce the new policy.

Change initiatives require three things to be successful: People need to understand why the change is necessary, what they’re expected to do and how they are going to be held accountable. There are several approaches a company can take to help aid employee understanding. Instead of dictating change about workspace behavior, the office could set up “clean teams,” in which employee representatives are invited to give input on the best approach. With that ownership, colleagues would then be a lot more likely to hold each other accountable instead of Frankie being the only bad guy. This could then leave Frankie with a new and more meaningful role: Identifying key indicators that the new initiative is working. He could measure things such as fewer missed deadlines or whether work products were being delivered more quickly to demonstrate the 5S approach was actually making a difference in productivity. Such reports demonstrate results that can keep everyone motivated to do more.

Employees can get behind organizational research that truly shows cleaner workspaces are more productive and efficient. But patronizing productive and professional adults with a cubicle cop is not the most effective way to influence behaviors.  Maybe the 5 S’s could use a sixth, “sensible,” in order to gain acceptance and have a true effect in the workplace.


Michelle Hicks, a senior professional in human resources, is a director in the communication practice of Buck Consultants, a Xerox company. 

About Michelle Hicks