Offices for All

We have a chance to resign offices to best optimize for different styles of work.

October 12, 2021
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3
min read

How do you like to work? Do you prefer quiet solitude or collaboration? Do you need lots of natural light or like to feel as though you’re in a dark cave? There’s no one right way to do it, as everyone has different preferences.

Historically we’ve had one type of office design. Sixty some years ago that meant senior people in offices and more junior employees in bullpens. Your office, including its size and location, directly related to your status, right up to the famed corner office. Thirty years ago, bullpens became cubicles. Ten years ago, it was about open, collaborative spaces as that was the trend among fast moving tech companies who needed to constantly shift people between teams.

Photo by Eduardo Alexandre on Unsplash

It’s not always universal in a company. Human resources often got offices since privacy was needed for HR conversations. Finance, too, in some companies. Sales teams were often in bullpens so that the competitive energy flowed freely across the team. But whether it was for just a department, or an entire company there was one plan to rule them all, one plan to find them, one plan to cover them all, and in the layout bind them.

We have a once in a generation chance to re-think offices.

As we look towards a covid-normal future (covid-normal meaning we live with covid in a relatively steady state as we do with the flu), companies will be rethinking their office needs. Many more employees will be working from home part time or full time. Offices are being redesigned. In that redesign, it’s important to consider not just what is needed physically, but what people need psychologically.

Any modern building includes things like ramps, recognizing that not everyone can walk. By providing stairs and ramps, it allows people to pick the right access path. What if we can do the same for people’s psychological differences?

In traditional office spaces you were assigned a desk in your department and were chained there until you quit or got promoted. As we return to offices, hoteling is more common, where people don’t have assigned desks, but pick a spot to sit for a day or a week. Recognizing that people aren’t chained to an area, we can provide options and flexibility. For example, some seating can be in private offices or offices for small teams that want to work together but have privacy from other distractions and interruptions. Other seating can be larger, communal spaces, right up to maybe a totally open space. The term seating itself isn’t just for chairs, they could be standing desks, desks on treadmills of other exercise equipment. There can be many options.

But it’s not just openness that matters. Some areas can offer more lighting, some less. We can finally find compromise in the great office thermostat battle by having different areas preset to slightly different temperatures.

These are the obvious ones. There are more subtle issues, like the subtle sexism in your office layout. Providing different options can address these as well.

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

Think about how your employees work; and if you don’t know ask them. Note: don’t just look at what they physically do today (assuming today they are back in the office) since they are constrained by their physical environment. Do they have small huddles of people lasting 10 minutes? Do they have many long meetings of 10-20 people? Are people shouting to each other across desks or working in quiet isolation? Do they need shared whiteboards? Shared computer monitors? Desks that can accommodate two people? Do people work in the same small teams or with different people throughout a project, or even throughout a day?

Granted this varies by project. Running some small marketing campaigns requires different organizational structures than planning a 20,000-person client conference so think about different types of work over the year.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. A company working in only 10,000 square feet just doesn’t have the room to implement all these options. And despite the myriad of electronic communication and coordination available to us, there are times when teams need to sit near each other. Two members of the team who work together may have rather different preferences. However, unlike in the past, teams can switch from one style of work environment to another from one week or month to the next, allowing different members of the team to flourish at different times and not have a system biased towards one type of employee.

As fewer employees are in the office at any one time, some of the reclaimed space can be converted into these different physical office styles. Some monitoring of demand may be needed, but that can also help determine what should be provided to employees to make a more effective office environment (e.g., in the summer demand for areas without the AC blasting will likely go up among female workers).

We have a once in a generation chance to re-think offices. In the past decades we’ve learned there are many styles of leadership, of communication, and of project management. It makes sense that there are many styles of office and by giving employees the ability to work in the style that best suits them, we can better optimize the experience and productivity of our teams, all while getting happier employees.



By
Mark A. Herschberg
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