Leadership

A Better Plan for Your Office Plan

By / Aug 31, 2015

The desks and cubes you set up for your employees shouldn’t be afterthoughts. But be cautious about workplace arrangements that promise loads of collaboration and productivity data.

We’ve fixated plenty on how leaders can manage employees, hire and fire employees, evaluate employees, and inspire employees. In the meantime, we haven’t thought a whole lot about the simple business of how employees sit at their desks.

That’s not a small thing. In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Olga Khazan reports on the rise of workspaces that do more to stoke collaboration and offer privacy—while, ironically, building in a little more Big Brother-style monitoring. Here, greener walls and background sounds of flowing water; there, spaces where desks expand into conference tables and partitions descend from the ceiling as needed. And over there, a Brody Worklounge, a lounge chair/private cocoon that lets staffers stay busy and uninterrupted—though to my eyes, the future of work looks a lot like an airport phone booth circa 1965.

”We’re all practicing our inside voices,” says the National Retail Federation’s Carleen Kohut

But lest I get too critical, it’s worth noting that office plans have long been a source of frustration for managers—allowing workers quiet spaces while also encouraging them to work together are diametrically opposed motivations, after all. In his recent book, Cubed, Nikil Saval writes about how this struggle has played out across centuries, and in recent years how the flexible “Action Office” turned into the dreary cube and then into the only slightly less feared open plan. “Creative thinking alternating with assembly-line drudgery,” as Saval puts it.

It could’ve been worse, though. In 1923, inventor and proto-futurist Hugo Gernsback proposed a “sleep eliminator” system whereby a worker at risk of napping on the job would receive mild jolts of electricity. (The artist’s rendering pictures a man on the job comfortably sitting in what looks like a bug zapper.) Two years later, Gernsback was back with a contraption he called an Isolator: a glorified deep-sea diving helmet adapted for the workplace, cutting off the worker from seeing or hearing anything around him in the name of better concentration. An oxygen tank was connected, presumably to help you avoid the crisis of experiencing coworkers’ air.

The Isolator is absurd, but…aren’t there days when you might want it? I’m sure that I and plenty of other people are introverted enough that spending a little time with that thing on our heads may sometimes seem like a fine idea. Which is the point: Every worker has different moods and needs depending on what kind of work is going on (and how close that big deadline is). Failing to acknowledge those needs may hurt productivity just as much as any fashionable obsessiveness you have about monitoring bathroom breaks and installing forced-fun foosball tables.

The right answer will differ from office to office. But the right approach is similar: Ask the people who’ll be sitting at those cubicles/offices/workstations/worklounges/productivity pods what they’d actually prefer. Last year, the National Retail Federation revamped their Washington, DC, offices with a mind toward increased collaboration, but they didn’t spring it on employees. “We polled the staff, our stakeholders, and our board members, and one thing we heard really clear from the staff was that we needed more room and spaces where we could meet,” NRF Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer Carleen Kohut told Associations Now.

That might matter more in the association space, where different departments need to coordinate efforts. Chatter is an issue, something NRF mitigated by introducing white noise. But workers needed to adjust too: “We’re all practicing our inside voices,” Kohut said.

That kind of change isn’t easy; As Khazan points out in her article, workers have a funny way of resisting being guided in particular directions. One person in an open-plan office said that coworkers tended to ignore red flags or other do-not-disturb signals: “If someone needs help immediately, they just tended to ask for it.” That’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking of implementing “smart” office systems such as Humanyze badges that monitor employee interactions and voice patterns. People know when they’re being nannied, prodded, watched. So are the spaces you create for them ones where they’re free to work, or are you just inspiring them to move on to another office entirely?

How do you handle your office’s layout, and what have you seen work (and fail) when it comes to keeping employees engaged? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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