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Sears Turns Office Space into a Recruiting Tool

December 1, 1998
Related Topics: Ergonomics and Facilities, Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article
When Sears Roebuck and Co. found itself struggling last year to find information technology (IT) professionals in the market surrounding its headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, the company solved the problem by recruiting in one swoop 25 software engineers in Boise, Idaho.

The “Boise 25” came up with the idea to market themselves as one unit when the company they worked for, U.S. Bank, merged with First Bank Systems of Minneapolis. Although employees had the option to relocate to Minneapolis or Portland, Oregon, they decided to take their severance packages and look for jobs in Boise, their hometown. “Most of us have families here, and we didn’t want to move,” says Linda Weis, director of Sears Application Development Center and one of the original Boise 25. “So we went on a search and found Sears.”

Sears already had a large presence in Boise with a customer service call center that employed roughly 1,000 people, but it wasn’t the most creative environment for IT specialists who would write software programs for the company’s business systems. So Sears used the recruiting incentive of “new office space” to close the deal with the Boise 25.

Sears put aside its traditional office-design standards and agreed to turn office space into a world of curved walls, moveable tables, retro-’40s chairs and tables shaped like cellos.

Designed by the Chicago office of Hellmuth, Obata and Hassabaum Inc., an international planning and design firm, the Boise office space is worlds apart from what the 300,000 other employees at Sears’ 840 department stores and 2,200 free-standing stores would ever imagine from a company founded in 1886. Sears has since used the cutting-edge work environment as a recruiting tool to turn the original staff of 25 into a team of 145 IT professionals.

To understand why a company would change its hiring practices and work environment so dramatically to accommodate IT professionals, Workforce spoke to Gael Hanauer, senior director of human resources, information systems, for Sears.

Was it unusual to hire employees in one large group of 25, as opposed to individually?
Certainly, I had never done this type of hiring before. But the market in Chicago was so tight, we couldn’t find enough associates to get our work done. Since we couldn’t make it happen here in Chicago, we had to make it happen somewhere else. We heard through contacts about 25 people in Boise, Idaho, who were marketing themselves as a group. We hired them as a group, but negotiated salaries and benefits on an individual basis. We had some market data in the Boise area, but not much. We used that data and our own Chicago title structure to determine everyone’s title and salary levels. We hired the manager in Boise, Linda Weis, who was involved in the rest of the negotiations. It worked out well for everyone.

Was courting young software engineers different from other Sears’ recruitment processes?
We definitely recruit differently for IT professionals. The IT pros we’ve talked to in the last five years are used to a dress-down environment -- no suits and ties. The Hoffman Estates facility was very much a business-dress environment until a year and a half ago, and it was the IT professionals who helped change us to a business-casual environment.

IT professionals also look for flexibility in their work schedules. The challenge to our human resources department is to not allow people to be so different from the rest of the company that everyone thinks they’re out in left field. We don’t go crazy. Shorts and T-shirts with sayings aren’t allowed. You want a certain measure of professionalism in the workplace. Yet with a tight marketplace for IT pros, you need to find ways to be flexible so people can feel comfortable.

Before you went ahead with new office space you held an “Imaging Session.” How did this help you make decisions regarding work space?
The Boise group and Sears got together as a team to define what the work area should look like. We wanted to give people latitude to be free with their ideas. The Boise group helped us define the space and figure out what worked best for everyone. They started to get into things like colors and furniture. The person who ran the process was an HR generalist from Sears. Some of the suggestions were probably strange, so it was good that we had an HR person who had a background in organizational design. You really need a facilitator to get to the right answer.

Everybody involved told us it was a great process. It definitely was a different approach than how it was done here at headquarters. If you can imagine, our Hoffman Estates office houses 5,000 associates. It would be difficult to bring 5,000 different opinions to alignment.

How much actual input did the initial 25 employees have in terms of office design?
Quite a bit, including the kind of furniture and the color scheme. We then held another set of imaging sessions with an architect. It’s important for people to feel as though they can have some input, that their opinions are valuable, that their managers actually will make changes based on their decisions. The expenditure for this project was no more or less than what we would have spent anyway. As a support office in Hoffman Estates, we’re pretty much tied to what we already have in place. But as we move forward, this type of imaging session could become more common.

How did you use the 29,000-square-feet of space as a marketing tool to increase your staff in that area from 25 to 145 information systems people within a year?
I’m not sure the Boise group expected a 100-plus-year-old company to be this open and involved in the process. It made the recruiting of other people even easier because the first 25 talked about what a great experience it was to work with a company that really listened to their points of view.

Before the offices were built, we showed the blueprints to prospective employees. During the interview process, we’d talk about the imaging sessions we held and, ultimately, the office space is a result of those decisions. Now we walk them through the office space. It’s one of those environments where you feel something different. The work space is very flexible. If you want an impromptu meeting, you can pull apart your desks and create a conference table.

People who walk through the office are surprised with the energy and creativity going on. Some of that has to do with the fact that these employees worked together before. But the way the office space is laid out is conducive to teams working together. The environment just feels special.

Now that you’ve enticed roughly 120 more people to join your office, what have you learned about employees’ opinions about their work environment?
If people feel like they can have some measure of control over their environment, they can produce better work. I believe they’re even happier. Who knows better what a work environment should be like than the people doing the work? We sent our IT recruiting specialist from the Chicago human resources department to Boise to meet face-to-face with prospective associates. We make sure we tell everyone that this office space is probably different from anywhere else they’ve worked, and [different because of] the way it was put together by the associates they’ll be working with. I think that’s a tremendous incentive.

Why is it important employees feel like they have control over their environment?
Even before we worked on this project, we spent the last five years trying to engage associates in most of the decision-making processes. Our associates have told us repeatedly that it’s important to them to have their ideas and thoughts recognized and rewarded. We were pretty sure going into this project that people would take to the idea. So we applied these same principles to the project in Boise, including what their work space should look like.

In the end, it helped facilitate the work processes in different and unique ways. Of course, it’s only been a few months -- but they tell us that their impromptu meetings, for example, are garnering them better business decisions because they have an environment that’s conducive to this sort of company interaction. They feel they’re more accessible to each other than they were in the past. You have to be careful, though. You don’t want a free-for-all. Fortunately, the associates pretty much police themselves. We’ve never had to step in and tell anyone he or she wasn’t behaving properly.

What have been some of the negative effects of the new office space?
I wouldn’t characterize anything as negative, but it’s an open environment with fewer walls and offices and more flexible furniture components. There’s a conference room for meetings and privacy, of course, but there’s more open space. One of the issues is that associates have had to learn how to deal with different noise levels. You have to watch how loud you are in an open environment.

What will your HR department do in the future to use office space as a marketing tool in other cities across the country?
This concept was a pretty easy sell to Sears. The company is going this way, anyway. Naturally, we’re fairly tied to what we have at our corporate headquarters, but we would be open to doing this sort of thing again. Some of the business we do may not lend itself to that, but this certainly was a blueprint as to how you can do something like this well.

Workforce, December 1998, Vol. 77, No. 12, pp.117-120.

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