Author: Drew Carter, Currents Studio Director, H. Hendy Associates

While human resources may be the first and last point of contact for staff, a healthy HR function can actively engage teams to maintain and improve valuable and expensive resources. But as companies become more savvy about how to physically organize their people to facilitate better communication — which results in more effective teams and better outcomes — HR remains sequestered.

Like nesting dolls, HR teams are often contained in their own suite, with individuals in private offices and visual barriers that prohibit passersby to see through. Typically, this is done in the spirit of protecting confidential materials or to provide a private place where people feel they can speak.

While well-intended, a subdued energy in the HR suite telegraphs a closed personality, rather than an open one. HR doesn’t often feel inviting. There is no amount of messaging that can overcome these nonverbal cues. And when there is such a mismatch, positive messaging can be interpreted as disingenuous. Do we have to choose between privacy and openness? Spoiler: No, we don’t.

In my work creating spaces that drive integration and high performance, I’ve learned that the
most innovative corporate human resources departments have great programs and understand
their role in helping to establish and foster the desired culture of the organization. They know
when to support, when to lead, when to mentor and when to apply controls. These are qualities
that can only coexist successfully in a culture of community and trust.

Here are five ways to use settings and nonverbal cues to promote trust and active engagement
between staff and HR.

1. Stand Together
It is important to provide space and tools that support what HR professionals are doing.
Historically, this has been done in ways that create a class divide between HR and the people
they support. Workspace standards such as the number of offices, sizes or workstations are
often different for HR than the rest of the organization. Workplaces are evolving, but people are
afraid to break the tradition in HR.

Instead of isolating HR pros in rows of workstations with high panels, privacy screens and
dedicated printers, create bullpens for working groups in HR. This cluster of workspaces
ensures privacy for the group, space for them to collaborate when needed and dedicated tools
like a printer or a team office for calls or counseling.

Instead of extra-large private offices containing separate conferences tables for HR leaders,
ditch the traditional desk. Design personal workspaces to accommodate additional visitors and
equip them with tools, such as a wireless display, to view materials and connect to meetings.

2. Invite People In
Even for those with private offices, rooms designated for conference calls, interviews,
counseling and terminations are common and necessary. These rooms are typically idle for a
fair amount of the work week, so invite other teams to use them. Use technology to manage
booking and reserve blocks of time for HR pros to guaranty them access.

3. Be Where The People Are
Put HR into the mix. For a financial services company we worked with in Southern California,
the entrance to the HR space was built so that it shared a connection to the central break area,
which functioned more like how a great room does in a home. Part coffee bar, part lounge, it is a
central gathering point, a place where people get information and connect.

Natural migration patterns can bring people closer to HR and foster better casual and
professional relationships without being intrusive or disruptive. And more importantly, sighting
someone by HR in a setting like this is no longer unusual or fodder for gossip.

4. Comfort
If you seat a staff member or applicant in a rigid chair in a drab, windowless room, the meeting
or interview will start out rigid and drab. The physical posture you put a person in sets the tone
for the interaction. It takes special effort to overcome. Start by removing the barriers of a table
between HR and applicants. Make seating and meeting spaces comfortable.

The best advice I’ve ever received for interviewing candidates is just to get them to open up and
talk. They will tell you everything you need to know about whether they are a fit. Consider an
interview room with a view to the outside, seated on small sofas in an L shape, with a coffee
table. A physically comfortable environment enables unguarded interactions.

5. User Experience
Making HR a more approachable and comfortable place has many downstream effects. For
staff, this can promote higher standards of communication, willingness to learn, better managers
and a workforce that actively supports and participates in the culture and success of a company.
As a major touch point for people external to the organization, HR can be strategically
positioned to enhance the public perception of a company.