(Non-Web) Site Planning: Office Layout

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'Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.'

-- Will Rogers

Many agency principals and their staffs are still sitting where they were 10 years ago-literally. They're still on the same patch of carpet in the same corner of the same room.

Physical arrangement of the office reflects a business philosophy. It speaks more loudly than any verbal pronouncements of management. It certainly makes workflow easier or harder than it would be otherwise.

The Independent Agency System has changed in organizational structure, technology utilization, compensation strategy, and marketing approach; yet its physical plant remains markedly unchanged. But there are rumblings that a new 'shape' is on the horizon-so this might be a good time to study the physical requirements of 'The Agency of Tomorrow' and create an agency of choice, rather than an agency of tradition.

WHERE THE PRINCIPAL SITS

Leaders are not the head of an organization; they are its heart. They should situate themselves in the heart of the agency. Hearing the buzz of the agency provides a continuous reality check. This helps leaders make decisions based on the way things are, rather than how it's assumed they 'should be.' Separation doesn't make the heart grow fonder; it makes the head more detached.

When principals separate themselves, managers tend to follow suit. Managers are accountable for certain results-and when they can't see those who produce these results, they're operating under a considerable handicap. Management is not a solitary undertaking. You can think and create behind glass walls with an open door.

COUNTERS: COUNTERINTUITIVE, COUNTERPRODUCTIVE

Clients or prospects who visit a traditional agency often see a counter separating them from the agency staff person. There's enough to separate an agency from its clients: banks selling insurance, competing agencies, direct writers, company service centers, and so on. Why add another separation? Why keep your most important asset at arm's length? Why not welcome prospects and clients into your business home?

Once visitors are in your office, what message does your environment send them? When prospects come in your office and are ushered into a comfortable (even plush) conference room or a producer's windowed office, they're being told how important they are to your agency. This is a good message. After they've become clients and they visit your office, they may see that the CSR who handles their account does not work in such a lavish office-maybe not in an office at all. Because clients are your agency's lifeblood, the people who handle their accounts should have the pretty, comfortable work areas, complete with windows.

Agencies that have reorganized to use account managers (who can concentrate on the client-contact functions of service, placement, certificates, rounding, and so on) and account technicians (who specialize in policy-checking, correction-seeking, and follow-ups) realize that good physical placement increases their effectiveness. Account techs need quiet space to concentrate on technical detail. They must be out of any waiting client's sightline so that there's no pressure of courtesy-that is, so they won't have to interrupt their flow by getting up to help the client. The account techs must be situated close to each other so that they can back each other up comfortably during heavy work times (such as big renewal months) and each other's absences.

Sitting account techs separately from the more numerous account managers actually encourages better electronic file documentation and internal E-mail communication, saving time and allowing each to focus on work rather than conversation. Perhaps most important, the account techs must be placed in quarters just as nice as the account managers, to demonstrate that their job role and accountability are as important as those of the account manager. This discourages a second-class image for some of the agency's most valuable employees.

WHERE SHOULD PRODUCERS BE?

If current clients are your agency's lifeblood, your prospects are its future. Producers who create new business grow your future. One chronic and potentially fatal disease of the Independent Agency System is the belief that producers are supposed to service what they write. Get over it! Producers should be salespeople. Written accounts need to be handled by account managers (what used to be CSRs). Overlap should be minimized. Salespeople must spend the vast majority of their work hours on active sales activity.

Producers who spend most of their time working in the only place where your prospects don't go-your office-are in the wrong place. Only in the insurance industry is the outside producer inside most of the time. Most producers don't justify their annual income from new business sales. Management justifies their income with the book they've previously written and then pay CSRs, too, to handle those accounts. Placing producers in a service team (or, heaven forbid, letting them try to manage a service team) reinforces this insanity.

Producers need space within the agency for very specific functions:

  • Client meetings: Your agency needs at least one (maybe more, depending on the number of producers) impressive client-meeting room equipped with technology for rating, looking up information, and giving presentations. 
  • Sales-program development and account-rounding: Your agency needs a quiet, separate place for the producer to think (wild thought!) and be creative, away from the crowd. 
  • Preparing sales presentations: Your agency should provide technology tools, access to information, technical instruction (manuals, CDs, Internet), and practice space. 
  • Learning: Your agency needs an in-house educational space large enough to accommodate producers and other personnel who would benefit from educational opportunities.

Some agencies are just starting to discuss and experiment with Producer Command Centers, which put the producers together to share ideas, brainstorm, and practice team-selling. (The compensation structure ensures that their 'sharing' is productive and not just fun.) Cubicles work for the identified producer tasks simply because they are 'tasks,' as opposed to eight-hour-a-day occupations. If the agency isn't as comfortable as a producer's Lexus, great!

Producers with laptops and in-agency docking stations are mobile and able to communicate in and out of the agency. While our industry's agency-management system vendors need to refine their systems' ability to work better in this mode, this is clearly where we need to go-and systems are good enough now to begin going there.

FOUND SPACE

Transactional files take much less space than traditional paper files. Agencies that aren't keeping agency copies of standard-policy declaration pages save more space. Agencies that scan appropriate documents save even more space. Policy forms, whether client-specific or specimen, can be researched online, rather than saved on paper. All this space adds up.

When account managers handle twice the number of accounts as their prior-generation counterparts, the agency needs fewer desks. Payroll dollars can be divided in larger increments to fewer people. As we realize that 'working' doesn't just mean 'in the office' but also from home or on the road, space can be reconfigured to be larger, airier, and more professional-looking. What recent college grad or young professional considering a change to the insurance industry wants to sit for eight hours a day in a rabbit hutch of a workstation? Any encouragement for young talent to join our industry is a good thing.

THINK ABOUT THE MESSAGES YOU'RE SENDING

Most agency principals would not put 'decorating talent' in their job descriptions, but maybe they should. You can be a brilliant success or an abject failure in creating a strong work environment.

Many agency managers talk about building team spirit but don't have a space that can hold everyone at once. It's like having Thanksgiving dinner in separate rooms. Meeting space for your agency family requires features that are different from those of your client meeting space. Staff meeting space should encourage free thought, discussion, and fun. Here are some guidelines:

  • Light, preferably natural light, stimulates thinking and openness. It discourages intellectual 'hiding' and creates energy. It's a necessity. 
  • Space should be flexible. You should be able to break down a large, all-agency-at-once room to more intimate spaces for department meetings, work groups, project teams, seminar work, and other activities for small groups. 
  • Display boards or facilities for informal projection should be available to stimulate group focus, keep group work on track, and serve as a credible record of the proceedings. Make sure that notes (flipchart sheets, electronic notes, print copies) are saved as long as necessary for reference, project management, and performance review. 
  • Avoid inspirational posters at all costs. Agencies that live up to those statements don't need to put them on the wall. People who work in agencies that don't heed such precepts view them on posters with an ironic twinkle (at best) and frustrated cynicism (at worst). 
  • Use artificial plants and flowers to communicate a low threshold for caregiving and a tendency toward disingenuousness. Or you can use real ones to convey your love of life and willingness to work to improve its beauty. 
  • Remember that colors, styles, and maintenance all convey a message. Orange shag carpets say, 'We're still in the '60s and we like it' (or 'We can't afford to get out of them'). Dirty, discolored carpet says, 'We've learned to live with problems.' A few carpet tears in high-traffic areas announce, 'Loss control is for you and not for us.' Mismatched patterns and colors bespeak haphazard decision-making and lack of focus.

A color scheme, compatible artwork, pieces that make you look twice: these are not easy to put together, but they're worth the time and effort. Take time, enlist a talented family member, or seek professional decorating help-but make sure that the environment tells a story about what the agency wants to be. It will help get you there.

DESK ARRANGEMENT

Our business successes or failures are in large measure determined by how we work. How we work is heavily influenced by how our work space is arranged. Having your PC behind you indicates that it isn't needed for daily work on client accounts. Putting a guest chair on the side of your desk makes eye contact difficult. Look straight at your clients, and let them see visual information. As one CSR said recently (while creating a 'wish list' for the new office arrangement), 'Being able to see clients and their body language helps me read them. If I know what they're thinking, I can do better by them.'

A REVOLUTIONARY THOUGHT

If office rearranging is in your agency's future, the project may be bigger than you are. Take advantage of the talent and ideas in your own office. Create a space-planning table in a conference room to allow your agency colleagues-from receptionist to principals-to sketch office arrangements, write down ideas, recommend colors, design a desk arrangement, or express wish-list items. Create a master plan. Disregard the way you've always done things, and have some fun. You can make the place you work help achieve what you want in your work.

Virginia M. Bates, LIA, is an educator on management and coverage topics and an independent consultant who advises insurance agencies and companies on E&O protection, successful technology usage, profitability, marketing, operations, and perpetuation. She can be reached at VMB Associates, Inc., 115 Ashland St., Melrose, MA 02176, (781) 665-0623, fax (781) 662-1288, E-mailvmbinc.@aol.com.
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