Four Types of Change: A Response to Citigroup’s New Workplace Design

The Wall Street Journal’s recent report on Citigroup’s transition from a closed work environment to an open office floor plan provides a contemporary look at how companies beyond the techno-sphere are eager to create a new workplace culture through the design of their offices. Listening to the ambitious comments from Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat to “flatten hierarchies” and “encourage communication among employees,” it is likely that the well-intentioned new design will challenge the status quo of the banking industry’s yesterdays.

However, a quick look at the 237 comments (and counting) suggests that individuals think otherwise about the sweeping changes taking place in Citigroup and at other, similar workplaces across the country. Comments like “if you are thinking about changing jobs check out the office set up first before it’s too late” and “what a disaster” indicate far less enthusiasm for the closed-to-open workspace transition.

In my 25+ years’ experience as a workplace strategist and designer, I can’t help but empathize with both sides of the equation. On the one hand, Mr. Corbat is a CEO looking to modernize his company and control costs. On the other hand, employees are forced to adopt new work habits, both physically and mentally, that are uncomfortable at best, and downright demoralizing at worst.

At the crux of both desires is the idea of change. Change is hard on an individual level (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?); but at an organizational level, the difficulty of change can be overwhelming. It’s therefore critically important that organizations first understand—and embrace—the four types of change prior to instituting any wide-arching modifications in work habits. These four types are:

  1. Physical Change: First, individuals must adapt to the actual physical change in their environment. Whether it’s a new desk chair, a new path to enter the elevator, or even a new desk mate, the physical change must be experienced first, embraced second.
  2. Emotional Change: While individual emotions will vary from person-to-person, the presence of emotions when faced with change is inevitable. In an organization looking to change a workplace culture and pattern, it is leadership’s responsibility to recognize and acknowledge these emotions (i.e. to care) when instituting such large-scale changes. Recognition of emotions (good or bad) does not imply that any such “change is optional;” rather, it simply demonstrates a much-needed element of empathy to the understanding of change and its process.
  3. Intellectual Change: Once a change is experienced and emotions are acknowledged, individuals move toward intellectual change – a shift in how to judge a situation. When given the right information and tools to assess the change, employees often begin to embrace change once the meaning and value are actualized in context.
  4. Intuitive Change: Finally, a persons’ instinct or “gut reaction” to change must follow suit for change to become effective and embraced. Positive experiences in the three previous change-types (physical, emotional and intellectual) lead to a positive gut response; likewise, negative experiences lead to negative responses.

Ultimately, as Citigroup embrace changes that reflect a more innovative and forward-centric philosophy, I am most interested in seeing how these changes not only inform, but also transform, their organization.