The Architecture of Service Excellence: …How facility layout affects service experience

J. N. Halm

That which affects the employee eventually affects the customer. This is a fact of service experience that cannot be overemphasised and it is a statement that should ring in the mind of every business owner, manager or supervisor at any point in time. The equation is simple.

That which affects the employee affects the one’s mood and the mood a front line employee finds herself in during working hours will have an effect on the way the one treats customers. If the one is in a negative mood and does nothing to correct that, the negativity will eventually seep out and affect the customer’s experience. I know. I have been there before.

What makes the front line job even more interesting and also more challenging is that so many things can affect the employee’s mood. What the one ate the night before, a movie or television show the one saw and even something that was said to the one can all cause a mood change. I know of someone who came to work in a bad mood simply because her favourite housemate in a Big Brother Show had been evicted the night before. There are grownup men who come to work in a bad mood just because the sports team they support lost a championship the night before.

Yes, that is how fickle human beings can be. But can you blame us? Are we not first and foremost emotional beings but love to think that we are very rational beings? Studies after studies have proven that we rely on our emotions to tell us what is important and what is not. In short, whatever affect our emotions also affects our actions and behaviours. If we happen to be dealing with others, then our actions also elicit a certain emotion in those others and the cycle goes on.

One group of people for whom this really matters are front line employees (FLEs). This is because any emotional-laden action will be directed at customers and if those customers do not like what they experience, there is bound to be trouble. This accounts for why customer contact employees are always encouraged to be on their guard regarding what they allow to influence them.

However, there is a very important factor that influences the emotions of FLEs that is rarely considered but has the potential of affecting an individual. This is the layout of the workplace. The way the workplace is designed has a direct effect on the way employees go about their daily duties.

For instance, if the office space is designed in such a way that employees have to walk longer distances, there will definitely be some frustrations that will brew. In 1923, Henry Ford described the time spent in unnecessarily walking around as “waste motion”. A 2021 publication on a five-month study done in the emergency department of a large hospital revealed that the distance between the nurses station and the wards where patients were kept played a role in how nurses offered care to those patients.

According to the publication titled “The Impact of Facility Layout on Service Worker Behavior: An Empirical Study of Nurses in the Emergency Department”, the distances even determined which patient received what kind of care. For instance, the researchers found that the farther the patient was from the nurses’ station, the fewer the number of times nurses visited that patient. However, what the researchers noticed was that when nurses visited those patients farther away, they spent more time with those patients. This makes perfect sense since the nurse knows that he or she might not be visiting as frequently as was expected.

The way the office is also planned has an effect on the way employees get to communicate during working hours. If the office setup is such that individuals are unable to interact frequently and only do so over the phone or Internet, there are bound to be some communication challenges within the office.

There is no substitute for face-to-face interactions among colleagues in an office space which is why many forward-thinking organisations designed their workplaces in such that employees get to “bounce into each other” more frequently. It has been found that the more colleagues met and exchanged ideas, the better the service they provide. From just these examples, it is clear how important the architecture of the office space is to the service experience.

Smart businesses know this and therefore are taking a second look at how they set up their workplaces. The days when all that is needed is a carpenter to do some demarcations of the open space are far gone. Even for some business leaders who are concerned about the physical environment within which the service takes place, they trend to concentrate on comfortable furniture and other such fixtures. However, if the spatial arrangement is not right, there is a limit to the comfort that expensive furniture can provide.

Today, some serious thinking is needed to design the layout of the workplace. Interior decorators, designers, architects, etc. with an appreciation of customer behaviour will do a lot of good for the fortunes of the business. The size of the office is important. However, no matter the size of space obtained, a good appreciation of the effects of space on the psychological wellbeing of those within space will cause the business leader to think deep into how to make use of that “small space”. The fact that the space is small does not mean that the space has to feel small.

It is important to note that the relationship between facility layout and employee morale is the indirect route by which layout affects service experience. There is however a direct way by which layout directly affects the experience of customers. Since customers also interact directly with the architecture of the workplace, layout is bound to have direct effects on the customer’s experience.

A typical business premises has two main sections. The best example I can think of is a typical banking hall. There is the customer side and there is the employee side. In many places, the line of front desk employees including those on the enquiry desks as well as cashiers provide the partitioning between the two sections of the facility layout.

In the days past, the customer side of the premises was relatively smaller than where the employees worked. This could be because in those days a lot of employees were needed to run a typical office. I worked in one such banking halls in my early days. Without the hyper-fast processing computers of today, a lot of things had to be done manually, which in effect meant that we needed more hands at the back office.

Fast forward to today, and thanks to advanced technology, employee numbers have dropped drastically. The drop in manpower has also coincided with an era of unprecedented competition within several industries leading to customers being overwhelmed with options. In response to this, some organisations have redesigned the internal space, giving more space to the customer section of the layout. Psychologically, this is a way of telling customers that they are the real “owners” of the business. The rearrangement of the office space to give customers more space is a tangible expression of the oft-used cliché, “The Customer is King”. That is what I refer to as having an “architecture of service excellence”.

The ability of space and spatial arrangement to communicate is widely acknowledged. Businesses must therefore ensure that in creating a truly unique customer experience—one that communicates to customers that they, the customers, are the most important people on the premises—nothing is left to chance. The exact location where every single piece of furniture is placed must be given serious consideration. The distance between employees and the distance between employees and customers must be totally thought through.

I am aware that such careful consideration might come across as making a fuss about something as basic as space. But that would be an unfortunate way to look at things. We find ourselves in an era where customers have to be wooed with a passion, if the business is to stay and thrive in business. If the layout is such that it is not complementing the efforts of employees and adding to the experience of customers, then there is a problem. If the layout is such that it does not provide the peace of mind that FLEs need to serve customers well, then there is a problem. If the layout is such that it makes employees reluctant to come to work and excited to walk out of the office, then there definitely is a problem.

I have reiterated on many occasions that when it comes to customer experience, small things matter. Something as seemingly insignificant as the layout can make the difference between a wonderful customer experience and a woeful customer experience. If a business has put in place all the necessary systems and structures to ensure excellent customer experience but things are still working, it is important to check the layout of the office space. Maybe, just maybe, the organisation might not have an architecture of service excellence.

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