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After reading Peopleware and The Programmer's Bill of Rights I have realized that my work space is lacking in what I would considering comfortable working conditions. I have been thinking about asking for some new equipment to improve these bad conditions (sitting in a 20+ year old chair that is falling apart, at an old metal desk that is too high off the ground and that scrapes my arms, with a slow computer and soon to be moved into a more noisy area of the building).

The office is being rearranged around the end of December and the only major change will be new carpet, but this seems like a good chance to make requests. How do I go about requesting solutions to these problems without seeming like I am making demands (and on a side note, should I approach my boss or HR)? I have considered providing data to show that the cost of such improvements is minor, for example showing that a $500 chair would cost a mere 2.5 cents per workday hour if the chair lasts for 10 years as per Jeff's example, is this a good idea?

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I think you're over-thinking the problem. Have you tried just asking your boss/manager? –  Freiheit Nov 29 '12 at 18:14
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@Freiheit I did ask if we were getting new furniture when I first heard about the move, but the question was basically brushed off. I want to prepare a good case for why we should have new equipment before I pop the question to maximize the chance it will become a reality. –  Paul Brown Nov 29 '12 at 18:17
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5 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

To some extent what you are asking is how best to build a compelling "business case" for the things you are after. In order to build a compelling case it can be useful to "seek first to understand, then be understood."

In building a case, the two main things to stress are :

- we are at risk and this removes the risk

- this is an investment, and will deliver rewards

In my experience most organisations respond more rapidly to risk (fear) than reward (greed), so when building the case this can be a better argument. More importantly, perhaps, people tend to be very skeptical of efficiency improvements, unless they either allow them to reduce staff headcount or produce a compelling improvement (usually a x10 factor, or 5%-10%+ of your total working time in a week)

So - I would suggest where possible you try and link the improvement you are after to risk reduction, unless you can make a compelling case for cost/time savings.

Examples might be:

  • reducing risk of employee injury (downtime, legal implications)
  • reducing risk of employee flight/turnover (poor conditions, equipment)
  • reducing risk of poor client/investor perception (outmoded hardware, scruffy offices)

The second thing to consider is where the money comes from.

In most organisations there are two parts to this - whether your boss has the "sign off" level to approve these things directly, and whether they have a budget set aside for this kind of thing.

These two issues are important, because if your boss lacks the either the direct budget control or the sign-off, then they will have to go to another contested pot of money elsewhere in the organisation (HR, IT, or their line manager), which will generally be a lot more work (for your boss), and require a much more compelling case.

Consider the situation where your boss has to make the health and safety case to someone else for the chair - a senior manager, or HR perhaps. if they take action in your case, they will have to take action across the whole organisation. The costs are no longer $500, they are $500 for everyone with an older chair.

If this might be the case, then its usually better to raise the issue informally with your manager, and make it about the whole organisation from the outset, not just about you, and to lead in with the key argument and supporting evidence:

"I came across this article that suggests poor ergonomics costs over $$million a year, nationally, in terms of employee downtime and workplace injury cases. Looking around this is a real risk for us - how can we fix it?"

Indicating from the outset that you are aware of the implications for your boss of what you are asking, and feeding them the ammunition they will need to make the case with others makes it much more likely they will respond in a positive way.

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Fantastic Answer! –  David Segonds Nov 29 '12 at 21:47
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Depending on your situation, you may want to team up with colleagues if many of you have similar working conditions and requests. The more of you step up together, the higher pressure you can exert to management. Also, the less tension develops between you and others (as it may happen if you alone get new equipment but others don't).

On the other hand, the more you are, the more costly it is for management to comply with your requests, which may reduce the chances of success.

Another key aspect is to frame your request in terms management can understand and find convincing. That is, focus on cost vs benefits. E.g.

  • "A new PC with faster CPU, more memory and an SSD disk would cost the company about $NNN. However, it would reduce the compilation time of our application from 10 minutes to 1 minute, saving on average X minutes per day. This would add up to $MMM per month based on my salary, paying back the initial investment in P months."

You may also want to google the web for research on the positive effects of ergonomic furniture (and the negative effects of the lack of it). A lot depends on the local law, but companies in most countries can be held accountable for employees developing long term health problems due to ergonomically challenged working conditions. In other words, improving the ergonomy of your workspace can be seen as an investment from your company's part to reduce long term health care costs, and also to increase employee satisfaction - which in turn reduces turnover, again saving considerable direct and indirect costs.

Ergonomic furniture may look pricey, but a high quality chair / desk can last for a decade. Compared to the cumulated salary of an average employee during the same period of time, this cost is peanuts (or toilet paper :-). So your company can make a huge long term difference in the mood, commitment and health of their employees with an investment the equivalent of which as a salary raise would most likely go unnoticed by most.

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I remember laughing at the toilet paper reference when I read it the first time, still very funny. –  Paul Brown Nov 29 '12 at 17:56
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Personally, I would approach the request to HR our your supervisor from an Health and Safety standpoint rather than from an economical standpoint. Work space ergonomics are a very important topic.

A faster computer may increase your productivity and a slower computer may not affect your health.

I would be surprised and disappointed if your HR department does not take those considerations seriously.

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+1 for linking the eganomic issue to health and safety, which can be a very effective approach –  GuyM Nov 29 '12 at 18:01
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You know in the past I have had the most success by simply finding out the process to buy new equipment or furniture and filling out the form and handing it to my manager. A good part of the time, we think something will be harder than it is. The reason you have bad furniture may be as simple as no one has requested better furniture.

Now timing is everything of course, you don't do this when they have just announced a layoff or a bad quarter finacially. But really most managers don't want to have to do the research to determine what kind of chair and where to get it and don't want to have to spend time filling out the paperwork. If you do all that before you make the request, you make it much easier for him to say yes, if he has the budget. All he has to do is sign the request.

If he doesn't have the budget this year, you can ask if he can get some budget for it next year. That's why the last quiarter of the year is often a good time to make the request - there may be unspent budget they want to spend it so they don't lose it next year or they can find a way to finance the equipment in next year's budget before it is all spent.

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+1 for a nice reminding me not to always overthink things; sometime the obvious solutions are there too! –  GuyM Nov 29 '12 at 18:55
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Do not sidestep your manager. At the very least, keep him in the loop. HR may or may not be appropriate, depending upon who is managing the office redesign/reorganization.

Two key points you may want to bring up:

  • Is your current desk properly designed as a computer workstation?
  • Is your current chair supportive & adjustable enough to relieve strain on your back, hips, neck & upper body?

Ergonomics & comfort are important, but you can't just say "I want a new desk & chair" - it should be obvious (and if not, you'll have to point it out) that proper desk & chair arrangements have a long-term health impact, which will ultimately hit the company's bottom line in increased or decreased health care costs.

Newer office furniture will also have a positive impact on morale, and if consultants, customers (current or prospective) or prospective employees ever see your offices, 20 year old furniture sends a negative message to those people about the company.

As for the slow computer, can you demonstrate that you will be more productive with a newer system? When I last requested a new PC, the conversation started with "I'm still using Windows XP, and the systems which are running the code I'm writing are so much newer (and therefore very different) that it makes development difficult." No questions about getting upgraded.

Noise is another one you'll have to demonstrate. Will it be a distraction from your concentration? Do you spend a lot of time on phone calls, where the background noise will become a hindrance? If you're in cubicles, can they be designed to block out some of that noise?

If you have colleagues who share your concerns and you can band together to go to management as a group, that will help a lot.

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