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Communicating through surveys.

In corporate America today, there is a trend towards defining office space not just as the physical place for getting work done, but also as an active tool for increasing the efficiency and productivity of the organization. An important part of this trend is skilled management of the relationship between tenants, as users of office buildings, and the physical environment of the buildings themselves.

Tenants rely on good communication with budding management to control their environment and to take advantage of its potential to increase organizational efficiency. In response, managers are increasingly developing tools to manage the complex relationship between building occupants and their physical environment.

Among the tools available to management as they move into the "communicator" role is the questionnaire survey. The appeal of a well-executed survey is threefold. It provides systematic feedback on issues of concern to management in a form which can be organized and analyzed. Second, initiating a survey implies a proactive concern for the quality of occupants' experiences in the building, rather than one that is reactive. Third, and most important perhaps, survey results can open a door to a variety of communication possibilities between tenants and managers.

The rouge of survey options

What kinds of issues can be addressed through occupant surveys? Information from building users may be sought to assist and advise new tenants during tenant build-out of new office space - identifying work-group needs; anticipating power utilization and communications requirements; and planning storage, social, and other support space in the office. Survey data might also be applied to solving building-related problems, such as complaints about ventilation, noise, or safety.

Systematic information from users can help building managers determine what is wrong more precisely than a simple reliance on complaints. This knowledge in turn can help managers set priorities on how and when solutions should be implemented and how to spend repair and maintenance dollars for the maximum beneficial effect on occupants.

When it comes to negotiating lease renewals, building owners may use a survey to help tenants anticipate their future needs and to plan ways of accommodating them. In enabling tenants to make their requirements explicit, managers can determine how best to respond within the context of the building. From the tenant's perspective, information on space-use and environmental requirements can help identify new office space and allow for more effective lease negotiations.

Why surveys fail

Questionnaire surveys do not always live up to expectations, mainly because they are not carried out correctly. For example, questionnaires are often too long. This discourages people from filling them out and provides an unwieldy amount of data if they do. When respondents do not fill out their questionnaires or if the data cannot be analyzed, the results are poor and yield little in the way of useful information.

Even if questionnaires are successfully administered, the data analysis is often harder than anticipated. A big problem is identifying the exact meaning of the questions asked - there are often unsuspected ambiguities in survey design. Another is understanding how to relate the answers of one question to the answers of another in a way that tells you something you did not already know. For example, by relating occupants' low thermal comfort ratings to location in the building, particular floors or HVAC zones can be highlighted as problem areas.

For many discouraged survey users, surveys mean a great deal of trouble to find out the obvious. Managers are often suspicious of surveys of building occupants because they may raise people's expectations about the solutions to their building problems.

Property managers fear that once tenants' opinions are solicited, they expect to see management solve all their problems. This is a legitimate fear if no follow-up to the survey is planned, but effective follow-up does not have to mean fixing everything in the building immediately.

Successful surveys

of building occupants

There are many ways of designing a survey. There are opinion surveys, attitude surveys, surveys to test hypotheses, and many more. To confuse these applications and try to have a single, multipurpose survey almost guarantees failure.

Opinion surveys are mostly used by public polling organizations to count "yes" or "no" responses to simple questions. A typical example might be "Do you think shops should be open on Sunday in your community?" Applying this formula to the measurement of tenant comfort in office buildings is risky because comfort is not an either-or issue. Managers would not want to ask workers, "Do you have enough space in your office?" because people would assume that this is an invitation to ask for more space and would give a response biased to the negative.

Attitude questionnaires and surveys to test hypotheses are an established and respected part of the workplace research tradition, but are not designed as a tool for decision making. These surveys ask questions such as how often they use building amenities, the type of work they do, and how satisfied they are with their jobs. Such surveys also ask questions on age, sex, and length of time in the building, which are correlated with the other data.

Questions about environmental comfort will typically be presented in a format known as the Likert scale. This scale presents a range of numbers, perhaps one to five, and relates them to degrees of response, such as "strongly agree," "agree," "neither agree or disagree," "disagree," or "strongly disagree." Scales may use a few or many numbers and may be labeled or not.

A greater number of points means more detailed responses, but they are harder to analyze and require a minimum number of responses for statistical validity. A three-point scale, on the other hand, may not provide enough information to interpret the results.

In principle, closed-end questions (those limiting the range of the pre-set response) are easier to analyze than open-ended questions, although they are harder to develop correctly. Open-ended questions provide more information, but analysis is cumbersome if there are numerous responses. In addition, opened ended questions tend toward the negative and can seem depressing to management.

In order to know which type of questions to use and how to formulate them, it is vital to have a clear purpose for the survey and the uses to which the data win be put.

The questions illustrated in Figure 1 show variations in ways of eliciting user feedback on specifics about the quality of the physical environment.

[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]

Successful surveys are brief, to the point, and correctly designed and implemented. To define the purpose of a tenant survey, first determine precisely what it is you want to know. If it is space planning for building out new space, then that is what the survey should be about. If it is to assess power and computer requirements, then the survey should focus on that. Weed out questions that do not precisely target what you are interested in and resist the urge to add "just one more" question.

It is important to remember that even a short survey will yield useful data if they are correctly analyzed. A short survey elicits a better response rate, is less likely to contain erroneous or useless questions, can provide plenty of data, and is cheaper to execute.

The Building-In-Use Assessment survey (Figure 2) uses a short and simple questionnaire to assess environmental quality as it is experienced by building occupants. The 24 questions, in the form of scales of environmental comfort, provide ratings that are computed into scores on seven "building-in-use dimensions." These represent key dimensions of the occupant's experience of the work environment: office noise, building noise, lighting, spatial lay-out and furniture comfort, air quality, thermal comfort, and privacy.

[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]

These seven key elements of "environmental quality" have been identified over many years of research into perceptions of office occupants as reported in the book Environmental Quality in Offices (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1989).

The results of such a survey are applied to a range of management actions, including decisions about renovations and changes, the build-out of new space, the design of new buildings, and priorities for ongoing maintenance and repair. Specific survey findings from each property may be used to make building-related decisions in such a way as to ensure that building improvements respond to tenant priorities.

As the questionnaire is short and the data is easy to analyze, the questionnaire can be re-administered at intervals to determine the effects of building changes and even to monitor the ongoing environmental quality as experienced by tenants over time.

Surveys as strategies

for communications

For all types of tenant surveys, it is important to remember that an important aspect of the successful survey is the communication opportunity that surveys represent.

The key to successful surveys in an organizational context is effective follow-up. Building owners and managers who initiate tenant surveys need to provide tenants with feedback on survey results. They must also be willing to act on the survey results.

In providing occupants with feedback on survey results, managers should indicate how they are responding to them. For example, how are occupant priorities being incorporated into repair and maintenance schedules, or how are some of the problems occupants have identified going to be fixed?

Some things can be fixed quickly; others take more time. Some are costly, and some cost nothing to fix. By keeping occupants informed about what can and cannot be done - and when - managers demonstrate their responsiveness to tenants without burdening themselves with a commitment to fixing everything immediately. Maintaining environmental quality in an office building depends as much on negotiation as it does on solving building problems.

As communication develops, occupants respond well to re-surveying with the same questionnaire. Managers can use the results to measure the effectiveness of their actions and to update their database.

In the long term, the survey is a monitoring tool for the quality of the building from the occupants' perspective. Owners and managers in organizations that respond well to surveys will develop additional ways of communicating user feedback.

A case in communications

The regional headquarters of a larger and prestigious accounting firm leases space in four of the best downtown office buildings in a larger American city. By and large, the company is satisfied with its premises, but in one newly occupied office tower, difficulties with the landlord coupled with inflexible policy decisions from the company's own senior management have resulted in a mistrustful and adversarial relationship between managers and building users.

To help counteract this communications breakdown and improve relations, management undertakes a survey of tenants on building quality. They want to systematically assess which users' complaints are important, which are widespread, and which are just "squeaky wheels."

Management will use these results to negotiate with tenants about improvements to the building (HVAC, cleaning service, security) and suggestions on ways for tenants to improve their space, such as better lighting and noise reduction. The results of the survey will help them allocate building resources to create the most cost-effective improvements to the building and improve their relationship with tenants and between company managers and employees.

The availability of systematically collected data and quantifiable measures of users' ratings help defuse the situation and permit long-range planning, and cooperative decision making replaces confrontation and accusations.

In another example, a Building-In-Use survey of a building already designated for renovation provided planners and managers with additional information on "dead air" zones and hot or cold spots, offices that were adversely affected by mechanical noise from the air handling systems, and areas that needed improved lighting because workers lacked daylight in certain spatial layouts. As the renovations proceeded many of these problems were solved, resulting in an overall improvement in environmental quality for occupants.

This organization is continuing to survey employees as renovations proceed, as new space becomes available, and as work-groups are being moved around.

In another example, two separate companies, both medium-sized regional subsidiaries of large national corporations, have used surveys to assist them as tenants in leased space. One made major improvements to a leased building to solve problems that occurred after occupancy.

The company decided to use a survey to learn why occupants' complaints were continuing after these improvements had been effected. Data gave feedback on lighting, noise problems, and furniture layout that was applied to a process of replanning and redesign of the office space for certain work-groups. The survey showed that large-scale building overhauls were no longer necessary, thus saving both the company and the owner money.

The manager also used a questionnaire survey for feedback on "client satisfaction" with the full range of building services. The two surveys have been so useful that the questionnaires have now been integrated into a regularly administered occupant survey yielding results that are used to update and improve services.

Are surveys worth the money?

A company that prides itself on good relationships with its tenants and cares to offer a level of management service that goes above and beyond the norm can make good use of one or more of the survey approaches described above.

Some management companies are experimenting with an assessment approach as a monitoring tool for the environmental quality of their buildings. They have a survey database for each building, which can be updated through resurveying users every year, or after any major change. If scores drop, the building is targeted for a site visit and for follow-up measurement. Areas where scores increase are also closely studied to reward staff for positive results.

Occupant surveys can be an important tool in changing and improving tenant-manager relations in office buildings. To get the most from them, however, it is important to place the questionnaire survey in the context of an overall strategy of communication and feedback.

Most commercial building tenants today are small firms with short-term leases. Even large companies, traditionally more stable, are responding to the changing economy by shifting, moving, expanding, and contracting more than ever before. In these rapidly changing times, owners and managers need to stay flexible, responsive, and emphasize quality. A well-designed and executed surveying strategy can help both tenants and managers meet these goals.

Jacqueline C. Vischer, Ph.D., is an environmental psychologist with international research and consulting experience. She is the author of Environmental Quality in Offices, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold. Ms. Vischer is director of the institute of Building Science in Norwood, Massachusetts, which offers building assessment services and advises on environmental improvements to enhance comfort and productivity in offices.
COPYRIGHT 1991 National Association of Realtors
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Vischer, Jacqueline C.
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:2403
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