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'Beach toweling' brings cruise ship policy to IT department

Who says working in an IT department can’t be like vacationing on a cruise ship?

Along with ridding the office of seven-foot high cubicles and assigned desks, one of the experimental policies Michael McKiernan, vice president of business technology at Citrix Systems Inc., introduced during a workplace redesign was beach toweling.

“It’s similar to a policy you see at a hotel or on a cruise line,” he said at the Fusion CEO-CIO Symposium in March. But it’s not exactly a vacation policy you’re likely to write home about. On most cruise ships, guests who leave towels or books behind in an attempt to reserve a deck chair are given a time limit to return before those items are removed and the chair is made available to another guest.

The same goes for Citrix employees who work in offices where the beach-toweling policy is in effect: If employees leave a desk unoccupied for more than two hours, they are to take everything with them. Otherwise, “you’re taking that resource out of the common pool so that it can’t be leveraged by others,” McKiernan said.

Beach-toweling police: 120-minute egg timers

As with the major cruise lines, enforcement measures also needed to be introduced for the policy to work. On a cruise ship, reserved deck chairs are sometimes tagged by a cruise ship employee; if a guest doesn’t come back within the allotted time, the items are removed. At Citrix, McKiernan introduced 120-minute egg timers. Employees can grab one, wind it up and place it on a desk to signal when someone’s not following the beach-toweling rule.

“It’s not punitive in terms of [we’re going to] take your stuff and throw it in the garbage,” McKiernan said. “But it’s a carrot and stick. We use a little bit of shame with people.” Plus, it’s a way of introducing beach toweling to workers who aren’t steeped in the Citrix culture, such as third-party contractors.

Will beach toweling stick? Only time will tell. At Citrix, McKiernan has taken an almost Agile approach to introducing new workplace redesign measures, so that a policy like beach toweling is often referred to as a prototype and not a finished product. That leaves the door open to tweak and change the policy to reflect the office culture. “We’ve had many different failures,” he said. But learning from those failures, admitting when policies don’t work and changing them so that they do is an important part of the redesign process, he said.

Plus, McKiernan said, what works in California may not work in, say, France or Germany. An iterative approach allows for workplace redesign policies to remain flexible.

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