As a kid, I imagined the office where my mom worked. From her descriptions, I pictured lots of those 50s style bomb shelter desks and all of the big important bosses sitting on big leather chairs in their offices (which had doors). That may have been true at some point in time, but the white collar working environment looks a lot different today. Most companies are experimenting with some level of open space plan, removing those high cubicle walls in favor of layouts that put coworkers eye to eye with each other. Some places are even getting rid of any assigned personal space. The Wall Street Journal article, Warming Up to the Officeless Office paints a pretty good picture.
These new floor plans are the product of economics and research about the positive effects of open communication and collaboration. Employers want to reduce the money they shell out for physical space and increase the productivity. Rearranging the office space impacts both. What I’m not hearing in the discussion is the effect is has on the employees’ working experience. Once someone has adjusted to spending 40 hours a week in a non-personalized, public space, do they like it? How does it change someone’s idea of going to work? Is it a good thing for the workers?
I’ve experienced a variety of spaces as I’ve bounced through the years. I once had my very own office with windows and a door for about 4 months (snoopy dance!) My first experience was in an old school cube farm with high walls giving a false perception of privacy. It was easy to forget that everyone around could hear everything and anyone walking by had a great view what you were doing. The most perplexing behavior common in these settings is pretending that you don’t hear things from other cubes. That phone call your coworker just had about their offer on a new house being accepted? Well, you better not just say “Hey congratulations!” Instead, social convention demands that you pretend that you don’t have that information. I don’t do well with that foolishness, so I’d be the oddball shouting congratulations over the cube wall.
The most difficult work space for me was living in a ‘war room’ also known as a team room with about 25 other people of varying disciplines. It was fun, awful, stressful, uncomfortable,efficient and did I mention fun? No illusions of privacy in a war room. (no fighting either). Each person had about 2 feet of desk space they could call home. The best part was the people who were working on the project were all together, and set apart. This helped us gel as a team, and allowed us to have plenty of impromptu discussions without disrupting people who weren’t involved. There were times that felt like I was living in a fishbowl which started to grind on us. Perhaps it was the shift in the project’s strategic direction that had soured us on the situation, or it was simply time to rejoin other teams.
Consultants commonly don’t get assigned permanent spaces. At best there is general area for them to park when they are on site. It’s ok. I was able to get used to carrying all of the things I need with me every day and disconnecting my nesting instinct from work. The experience inspired a fundamental shift in my mental model of my work space. Being at the office is focused on getting things done instead of my presence within a corporate machine. With no physical manifestation of position or function, the emphasis is rightly put upon relationships and performance. I’m less firmly planted in my chair. Going over to talk to others is much easier than laboring over the tone of an email. Aspects of this arrangement appeal to me.
The challenge with these open arrangements, is lack of personalization which some people need. Will denying employees the ability to make their work area a home-away-from-home make them less attached to their current employer? All of us are learning how to deal with the escalation of stimuli in our daily lives from technology and other demands. Will the absence of quiet spaces to concentrate and think put undue stress on introverts and impact our ability to have creative epiphanies? There have been some great books about these lately. I recommend Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking for a great perspective.
I also wonder about the shift of recognition and compensation to less visible forms. You no longer see those promoted getting a bigger office, or a new title on a door. In a more egalitarian environment, how do we know people are being rewarded? Seeing what others achieve makes us aware of the possibilities for ourselves. New ways of accomplishing this need to be created.
The world is changing so dramatically. I’m excited to see how things evolve and what works and what flops. When all of us Gen Xers are old and grey(er), we’ll be the ones walking around telling the tales of the transition. “I tell ya sonny, at my first job, my boss had an office. By the time I became a boss, I had to share one big table with everybody.”