There has been quite a bit written lately about office space design. Mostly, the points of view are about what encourages collaboration and “effective use of space”. However there seems to be little thought about the impact of it on current employees. Collaboration is monumentally important. There is almost nothing done in an organization today that isn’t done as a team. But, collaboration can’t be forced or mandated. Collaboration is a function of the people and dynamic on a team. It has to be encouraged, fostered, etc.
Effective use of office space really is about the type of work that your organization does and how changing it might impact your current employees.
THE DREADED CUBICLE
Cubicles are accepted practice. It is really unclear why though. For the most part, cubicles are associated with the worst part of work. Based on a very unscientific study, the three biggest issues with cubicles:
1. THEY GIVE A FALSE SENSE OF PRIVACY –
For some reason employers give half walls between employees to allow for a sense of privacy. But, they don’t really give privacy at all. People can’t really have conversations or phone calls that aren’t heard by others. Although there are “walls” there is no real privacy.
2. PROMOTE CLASSISM
Unless each and every person in the organization has a cubicle, they indicate the differences in hierarchy of an organization. There are some organizations where employees and managers are in cubes, but the managers have BIGGER cubes. It is a physical reminder that not everyone is equal in the organization.
3. DEMOTE INNOVATION
Cubicles not only don’t allow for much privacy, but they don’t allow for much innovation either. The separation between employees is not enough to have private conversations and therefore lessens the opportunity for spontaneous collaboration. Noise is frowned upon in many “cubicle farms”. Trying to solve problems together is difficult when there is little room for collaboration.
HOW ABOUT “OPEN SPACE”
The newest trend in creating more “collaborative” offices is open space. Essentially, it removes all the barriers between employees so they have to sit right next to each other, sometimes around a common table, to get work done. The theory is that this will increase employee contact and enable great collaboration. But there are some inherent problems with open space workplaces:
1. IT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR EMPLOYEES TO THINK THROUGH PROBLEMS AND CONTEMPLATE –
Cramming everyone into the same space actually decreases the ability to think.
Increased stress levels decrease our abilities to think clearly. Our ideas become muddled and we actually get less done.
2. THEY ARE A NOT CONDUCIVE TO “NON-EXTROVERTS”
SO WHAT IS THE RIGHT ANSWER TO CREATE A GREAT WORKPLACE THAT ENGENDERS COLLABORATION?
1. DON’T RELY ON THE MAGIC OF SPACE TO DRIVE, ENCOURAGE OR ENFORCE COLLABORATION.
Although this seems like a no-brainer, the fact that so many organizations seem to jump on any bandwagon to encourage collaboration makes it necessary to say. It is similar to believing that buying a treadmill or stair master will make you lose weight. Just like buying a piece of equipment can’t magically make the pounds drop off, altering space alone will do little to encourage people to work together more effectively.
2. IF OFFICE SPACE IS GOING TO BE REDESIGNED TO ENCOURAGE COLLABORATION GET EVERYONE INVOLVED IN DESIGNING IT AND MAKE SURE EVERYONE PARTAKES IN THE CHANGES
Yes, that’s right. Get everyone to provide input on how to make the office more collaborative. It’s not about implementing every idea, but people want to have a say in where they spend the majority of their day. Just like any change, if the people impacted are involved, they are more likely to be on board. And, make sure that every single person, from CEO to new hire, participate in the new office layout. If employees are going to be working in an “open space” then the executives should too.
3. BE MORE COLLABORATIVE.
Duh! If collaboration is important show it. Don’t just change office layout and say “now be collaborative”. Remember that treadmill? That’s similar to saying, see that treadmill? Now get in shape! Pretty stupid right? If collaboration is important:
• Train managers to promote and encourage collaboration
• Develop collaboration as a skill
• Reward collaboration
• Knock down silos
Office space is important. It can encourage collaboration and camaraderie. But, not every company is Google or Facebook.
Their cultures are designed around a specific style of work. That is why the “open space” works for them. Think about what is best for your organization and do that. Don’t just copy the latest trend. That won’t make more collaboration it will just create more disengagement.
What do you think?
Anil Saxena is the President of Cube 2.14, an organizational development consulting firm that works with clients to increase both customer and employee engagement while decreasing turnover, improving customer retention, and increasing profitability within organizations.
Saxena is a certified High Impact coach and trainer and a Joint Application Design facilitator. He is also certified by both Rush Systems and IBM as a focus group facilitator. He is an inaugural member of Northwestern University’s Learning and Organizational Change program, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology.