The Perfect Office Setting

June 12, 2009

What is your idea of a perfect office setting? While I’m sure that everyone has their own personal concept in mind, I’ll bet that no one would choose the most prevalent model in place today: the square cubicle.

Square cubicles are a relic of an outmoded era of management and approach to work. When I began my professional career, a person’s status and rank within the organization was always defined by the size of their cubicle. And the work, among other things, flowed downhill in those days as well. In fact, the work was passed down some rather significant – if not bloated – hierarchies.

In my early days of working in a very hierarchical organization, I always took care to operate within the bounds of my position. Whenever an issue arose that required the attention of someone further up the food chain, I always took care to pass the issue along. And that person would always be willing and receptive to take action. It was ordered existence, command-and-control all the way.

Times have changed. We’ve been implementing technology to ratchet productivity up, and we’ve also got a couple decades of “doing more with less” behind us. I don’t know what your thoughts are, but I don’t believe that technology has closed the gap as much as we’ve added to people’s daily workload.

Thanks to the trimming of overhead and flattening of hierarchies designed to reduce costs and optimize speed and productivity, people not only expected to do more, they are also expected to take more initiative and responsibility. And let’s not forget, we have to keep our eye on other things that we never used to worry about, like our 401Ks.

Today, we need to move towards more open, team-based workplaces. Office settings need to address the needs of the new workforce. People need to come together quickly to work on projects in a collaborative environment, adapting space to meet the team’s needs. And because pressure to perform in short time frames will NOT go away, the space should lend itself to enhancing people’s ability to collaborate, and not be an obstacle to it.

Most of the standard cubicle layouts in use today actually impede collaborative efforts. They are too cramped, too closed in, and end up stifling teamwork. Here’s a telling question: Do you feel more comfortable working at the corner coffee shop, or your office?

If you answered the coffee shop, why is this so? Frankly, most office layouts are archaic. They assume everyone will come to work every day and toil on personal, isolated projects. And when people do need to meet, conference rooms are available, which again are based around information-sharing needs and discussion purposes, not team collaboration.

A more relaxed coffee shop atmosphere with comfortable chairs, tables, white boards, open meeting areas with large screens would be, well, fun, wouldn’t it? Given the stress to deliver that we’re all under these days, shouldn’t an office reflect the desire for more relaxed, innovative, collaborative concentration of efforts?

I wouldn’t plan space around everyone working every day in the office, either. I would leverage telecommuting for the following purposes:
  • To maximize the available collaboration space.
  • To maximize personal productivity by allowing people to work at home when they need to concentrate on tasks that their teams need them to complete. 
  • To reduce the cost of office space required by a company.
Naturally, privacy areas would be available for people when they do come into the office, and I’m sure there will be those who feel that they need to come into an office every day to be productive (I’ve actually had people tell me this). In this new world where telecommuting is allowed, would everyone actually need their own office at work? I think not.