Can someone please explain to me why, if companies want to encourage long-term commitment from employees, they place those employees into the human versions of commercial barns? They are crammed side by side…surrounded by noise and chatter…with little personal space and even less opportunity to claim what space they have as their own? We have figured out that chickens produce better eggs when they are cage-free and able to flap their wings, yet office designers (and CFOs) continue to shrink the amount of space allotted to their office employees. They call it collaborative space…I call it a good idea run amuck.
I was reminded of this recently when I was talking to a friend who had just started a new job with a large and growing international company. That company is in the process of integrating people and infrastructure after a recent acquisition. On his first day, they handed “Tim” a laptop and a cell phone and placed him at a temporary cube because they are reconfiguring the work spaces to fit the growing team. The cell phone replaces an office extension, and the laptop connects to a docking station that is supposed to have an Internet connection. In the few short weeks that Tim has been working at his new company, he has been seated at two different work stations…and he isn’t done moving. While he loves everything about his new job, he is finding it very stressful to cross his fingers each day and hope that his work station will connect to the Internet. He finds that he is not as productive as he would like to be because of the crowds and noise levels in the office. And the nomadic nature of his “office” makes it difficult to declare that he is “home.”
I had another conversation a few weeks later with my niece who works for another large and very high-profile company. That company’s fancy office features “hotel” seating. Don’t know what that is? Let me explain. Given that a certain percentage of employees are out of the office on any given day of the week, the powers-that-be calculate how many work stations are actually needed—that is, the total employees minus the percentage of people not in the office. The money people say, “Hey, why pay rent for all those people who don’t come to the office?” Instead, all the employees get lockers for their personal belongings, and when they come into the office, they go to the lockers…retrieve their stuff…and claim a space to work. It’s kind of a cross between musical chairs and when you were in college and hoped that your favorite study carrel was available on the library’s third floor.
On the one hand, my niece’s company is very open to people working from home—and that can be good. On the other hand, when you want to work in the office, like Tim, it is a productivity-suck to gather your belongings and set up shop each day, hopefully in a quiet neighborhood where you have all the materials you need to get your work done.
And once again I ask, How can team members feel at home when they are forced to be nomads? And how can they even feel part of a team when they are sitting next to different people every day?
The movement toward open architecture, or collaborative space, was intended to improve communication among teams and across work groups. But in my humble opinion, employees now have to wear headphones to block out the distractions, so it seems that the original concept has gotten way out of control, thanks to rising real estate costs and increased pressure for profits.
Meanwhile…employers complain that younger people jump from job to job and don’t stay for long. Well, if companies are not creating environments that provide those young people with a home away from home and are not letting younger employees know that the company cares about them, then it’s no surprise that they don’t have loyalty to the company.
The numbers are bearing that out. A study by Gallup showed that 63% of workers are disengaged from their work, and another study by Steelcase Office Furniture and IPSOS found that the vast majority of their 10,500-worker sample had issues with privacy and an inability to concentrate. Could it be because the average square-foot-per-person allocation has been reduced from 500 square feet in the 1970s to just 151 square feet in 2017? And that space is getting even smaller as hoteling and benching become more popular?
This is not a formula for success.
I am proud to say that Bottom Line Inc. did it better when we, too, succumbed to the temptation of “collaborative space” 18 months ago. Sure, we were excited to reduce our footprint and real estate costs, but we did not compromise in one key area—our team members had to feel like they had their personal space to create their work home. This was my rule. I wanted people to want to be at the office…to feel comfortable with their own place. I am pleased to say that industrial psychologists are validating my theory. They agree that humans need privacy and quiet even in collaborative environments.
At the advice of our designers, Amenta Emma, we created four-station work groups, rather than individual cubes. The walls that separate the work groups provide what is called “seated privacy.” Here’s a little-known secret about noise—the loudest office environments have tall three-sided cubes. Why? Because individuals feel like they are in a private space and so speak in full voices even though the sound carries. With seated-privacy-height walls, people tend to lower their voices because they are aware of the openness of the work environment.
To further help our team members feel like they had a sense of home, we gave them choices for the configuration of their work spaces—shelves or file drawers…cabinets…rolling drawers…work tables to share with their neighbors…and more. Just enough choice to allow them to “own” their spaces and feel involved in the process. And of course, we created plenty of group-meeting areas throughout the office—some formal and some casual. Our company kitchen is so bright and welcoming that the UPS man who delivers to our office takes his lunch break with us each day.
It frustrates me to see blame being placed in the wrong place. Last year, I wrote a blog about Amazon and other websites being blamed for the demise of brick-and-mortar retailers, instead of placing blame on the true culprit—the demise of customer service. I believe that the same is true when it comes to staff turnover. The younger generations are being called self-centered and disloyal for constantly wanting to go where the grass is greener…for never being satisfied with what they have. The truth is, corporate America is failing to create a lovely green pasture where workers can grow, thrive and flap their wings. We have become ungracious in so many areas of society, including the treatment of our own team members. We can’t expect loyalty if we don’t provide it.
If we want employees to be excited about their work and feel connected to the company and the team, then we need to create environments that are conducive to that. Collaborative space is great. Uncivilized space is not. As in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, too many private offices and too much space is “too big”…benching and overcrowded aseptic spaces are “too small.” We need to find that place in the middle that is “just right.”