The Office Elephant in the Room

cube_office spaceThis is continuing my thoughts on the 21st Century workplace and focuses on the office itself.  I’ve been in a variety of companies with a variety of configurations.  I’ve recently really embraced minimalism…like real minimal.  My “office” is now my computer bag.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not simply advocating that everyone should ‘work from home’.  That tired cliche is so ingrained with people that they cannot (or will not) consider that there are all kinds of alternatives.  In the spirit of “the 21st Century Entrepreneur-ism”, I ask you consider that there’s a better way to work than either a cube farm or telecommuting.

Even though many companies want to fancy themselves as cutting-edge, entrepreneurial and more like Silicon Valley, they still have traditional cubes. I think this is the worst of both worlds: isolating but yet not private.  Also, many companies still have a good deal of personal offices for higher-level executives.  While I recognize the need for private conversations to occur, I’ve seen too many times where prime real-estate in the office goes unused for many hours in the day.  For example, how many times have people complained of not having an open conference room when offices are occupied by a single person?  Of course, the reason that cubes and offices still exist is for the most fundamental elephant in the room: the people at the top want to have a status symbol and remind the people in the cubes that they command an office.  While I can say that is all wasted energy that should be used to improve the company, it’s very difficult to fight…because execs are – after all – just human with weakness and insecurity just like you.

The idea of pushing everyone out of the office to work from home is pretty crazy too.  I mean, the point of working is to be part of a team.  How much like a team can people feel with they have no human contact with teammates.  Of course, there are tools (IM, conference calls, etc…).  The reality, though, is that to really create a team that works well and trusts each other, they have to have the informal “water cooler” and “lunch” interactions that reminds us that we’re all human.

So what’s a better way?  First, get rid of the status symbol of offices.  If you really want to be a “servant leader” (…corporate buzzword of 2013-2014!), truly level the playing field and let your subordinates see you work each day.  In the past, a team member of mine actually said, “…I have no idea what [insert name] does because he/she is shut up in his/her office all day…”.  By actually working WITH your subordinates, you might even inspire them! Next, get rid of the cubes.  Set expectations that people don’t get a whole cube’s worth of “stuff”.  People should be there to work and don’t need 5 drawers full of who knows what.  To replace the sense of ownership from the lack of cubes, make up for it in other ways…offer free snacks or drinks.  Your company should be making enough money to afford this.  Then set up collaborative (loud) areas and quiet areas and let people choose where they work (e.g., set up several large tables).  By giving people the option of where they want to work based on the amount of interaction or privacy they need, it will give them more control over their surroundings (giving them more satisfaction).  Finally, take the offices and make all of them conference rooms.  Give everyone the option to have some privacy…or take the conference call that isn’t in the middle of a bunch of cubes.

Give some of this a chance and you’ll see the a large culture shift!  …now that’s disruptive innovation (…the other corporate buzzword for 2013-2014)…


Veteran technology professional and manager

Posted in Career, work habits

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