I wish I had a better answer, so I'm writing this an hoping someone else will say "no way" and write a better one.
Start the Quest
The only places I've seen the "small things quest" succeed is when there is:
A small enough entity to reach agreement with enough control over the purse strings to make it happen. For example - if the organization has 1000s of people, and the overhead budgets are figured out at 1 budget per 1000 people range, there is no hope, find a new organization. But if the budget is under discretion of say 100 or less people, there may be hope.
The management has some reasonable level of empathy and/or came from a heavy-typing career path themselves (most creature comforts having something vaguely to do with computer user and office supplies that are normal for cube/office dwellers).
Quite honestly, if these two things aren't there, the basic ingredients aren't right, and my next answer is - your office is broken, find a new one if it matters this much.
Next Step - Fix the Impediments
The biggest problem is the "he has it, I want it" problem for most of management. I doubt that any manager would mind a $50/person budget for creature comforts like favorite key board, favorite stapler, favorite headset, etc. It's the problem of "he has it, I want it" that gets out of hand. If you want a stapler, and the next guy wants a key board, and the next guy wants a headset - that's great. When all 3 say "but the other guy has a ... I want one too...." the budget starts to grow from $50/person to $150 per person.
Any manager who has been bitten by this one, is probably twice as averse to doing it again, as this leads to (seriously) office supply theft, endless whining and other complaints that just shouldn't be part of a well-paid person's daily life. The only fix I've seen is to eat the cost and assume that once one guy has it, everyone will want it, so the office can support $X amount of office stuff a year, and everyone will just have to standardize on A, B, and C equipment options.
This where I invoke, the "underpants...profit!" problem - if you have a solution for getting from impediments to nirvana... but I'll describe the nirvana, just in case someone can figure a way to invoke the office initiative.
In my nirvana, there'd be a way to say to each knowledge worker -
- Here's your yearly stipend - use it for computers (that are covered
by our warranty/lease), use it for headsets, keyboards, staplers, awesome chairs,
tape dispensers or anything else you like. But - when it's gone, it's gone. If your stuff dies, is damaged, is lost, or whatever, it's gone, and you either get the warrantied replacement or you get whatever cheap stuff we can scrounge for you.
- We have these basic, cheap consumable office supplies (pens, printer paper, notebooks, etc) - you want a snazzy pen, a planner, whatever, it's on your stipend.
- You have to be able to do X, Y, and Z - type on a computer, support phone calls, support video calls, print stuff, staple stuff, etc - whatever - and your setup has to do these things, or you need to spend your own money to make it happen.
- We have an honor system and we enforce it - steal stuff from another employee's desk and we'll dock your pay or fire you. Seriously. Even for a stapler.
- No making the admin crazy. However we order the supplies, people need to be able to put in the order, have it deducted from the stipend, and it can't be a full time, nerve wracking job for the admin to figure it all out.
I'd bet you that there's some funky startups out there that do something like this... but I'd also bet that those funky startups aren't plagued by the organizational overhead of a big company.
To implement this level of sanity would take fighting back against the organizational machine. The very thing that allows large groups of people to work in a corporation is exactly what's fighting you for customizable creature comforts - the need to treat everyone equally and enforce a set of rules everyone can live by is the same system that gets overly picky in buying all the "standard" tools so that they can be interchangeable between employees and no one gets special treatment.
The only way I can think to win the battle is to provide a mechanism and option for changing the organizational norm that meets the general management objectives of:
- no one gets sued for discrimination
- everyone has the equipment they need to do their jobs (which includes the people who didn't want to be doing part of their job and thus skipped, say, getting a phone that rings)
- the budget doesn't get exponentially bigger
- the manpower of buying and tracking the gear doesn't get more expensive than it is now
- the culture becomes theft resistant enough that there is no pettiness against who has what cool gear
I agree with Joel that it should be possible to get people the gear they not only need but prefer to have to do their jobs, particularly when the cost per person to get such gear is less than the cost of TP for the year. But the problem I've seen is that while to it may be possible to get each person his most preferred office equipment item more cheaply than you can get the TP, getting everyone ALL the top of the line gear is significantly more expensive than can be reasonably afforded and that's where the balancing act comes in.