These days, managers DO NOT need their own offices separated from the rest of the staff. By all means, keep any offices you do have open to anyone who needs them for focused, private work or meetings. While older employees may feel a bit intimidated having their managers visible and within earshot, all day, the newest generation of employees prefers a management style that is more collaborative and informal. It’s certainly a shift in thinking, and one that may require some adaptation from older staff and managers alike, but the benefits to be gained from seating everyone together are worth the effort.
What type of environment and culture you create for your staff is vital to the success of your business. Seating arrangements are just one part of this complicated puzzle, but a more important one than many businesses may appreciate. The office layout can have a tremendous impact on the way staff interact and collaborate, the power dynamic between managers and staff, and the morale and engagement of your whole team.
A natural place to start piecing together the office layout puzzle is deciding whether or not to provide a closed office for each manager. In this post, we will discuss the benefits of assigning offices to managers vs the benefits of not doing so. We’ll also explain that new ways of working stress the benefits of the latter far more than the no-longer-relevant advantages of the former.
In most movies set in a business environment, managers each have their own enclosed office space, often with a pretty secretary perched at a desk outside their door. Think about how that small detail in setting shapes the audience’s opinion of the manager and his or her personality and relationship with their staff. More often than not, it creates a sense of boundary, cultural separation, and most importantly, a sense of status differential between the boss and their minions.
In short, a closed office for a manager signifies prestige and superiority over the rest of the staff. You probably cringed a little bit reading that just now, and rightly so. That’s because creating an aura of prestige and superiority around their managers is no longer something companies should aspire to like they did a few decades ago. Corporate priorities used to be about keeping employees in line and showing not just respect, but reverence, and maybe even a bit of fear, towards management. Any company that tried that today would be dead in the water.
Back in the 90s, I worked in the corporate headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, and there was an entire floor kept off-limits to the lowly operational personnel. Once, and only once, did I have the “privilege” of visiting this floor. The furnishings, décor, technology, and perks available to executives working on this floor were appallingly extravagant compared to our cube-farm and tiny kitchenette below. The effect was as intended. Employees wouldn’t dream of bringing an idea to a top manager residing on that illustrious floor, let alone offering feedback or, god forbid, challenging a company decision.
Corporations are fully aware that creating this type of intimidating work environment would not go over well today. A UK survey by Dale Office Interiors found that 55% of employees aren’t just more comfortable with the boss nearby, but more productive, too. Today’s employees would scoff at being made to feel so subordinate – and they would leave.
Managers naturally have a greater need for privacy than most frontline workers. Imagine working in a completely open office environment with NO closed rooms. Now imagine you and your manager need to discuss your performance review, your annual bonus or salary increase, or how you compare to coworkers in the running for a promotion. Would you want to have that conversation out in the open for all your colleagues to hear? Of course not!
Managers and executives also need to have private discussions about long-term strategy, headcount requirements, talent pool evaluations, benefit updates, and more. While the outcomes of these meetings may ultimately become common knowledge to all employees, managers need the privacy to discuss options regarding sensitive matters without sparking distracting rumors among employees.
If a manager doesn’t have their own office in which to have these meetings, what are they to do? This is where we can start to get into the details about the preferred office layout to one that assigns an office to each manager. Working in an open office environment on a daily basis doesn’t necessarily mean there shouldn’t be ANY closed offices available. On the contrary, a few closed offices are an absolute requirement for the times when certain types of work require privacy. But those offices don’t need to be the permanent residence of an individual manager. Instead, they should be available for anyone to use as needed. Of course, managers will likely utilize these spaces more often than their employees, but this shared-use scenario both meets management needs of privacy and reaps the benefits of not assigning an office to each manager.
While totally open offices have become more commonplace than ever in recent years, countless studies have now uncovered their dark side. Entrepreneur magazine enumerated a number of the most debilitating effects of the pure open office environment: office commotion impairs recall and basic arithmetic; hearing one-sided phone conversations is even more distracting than hearing whole conversations; employees lose 86 minutes of productivity every day to distractions; 62% more sick leave is taken; and stress, blood pressure, and turnover are all elevated.
Aside from the obvious impact on employee health and well-being, a wholly open office makes it impossible for workers to focus intently on a task for any significant length of time. Private offices are therefore completely necessary in any office environment for focused work and deep thinking. But this isn’t any more true for managers than it is for the average employee! Most independent contributors must occasionally depend on a closed, quiet room conducive to intense periods of focused work and deep thinking.
Businesses must recognize the need for some closed office space incorporated into any open office layout. But those closed spaces aren’t required by managers 100% of the time and 0% of the time by their employees. Office spaces should remain unassigned, not restricted to management use, and reservable by anyone as needed.
All those fancy offices cost money! It doesn’t take a genius to figure out you can fit a lot more people into an open office space or cube-farm than in private offices. This is essentially why the open office concept began – that and the ability to more closely monitor all employees in one open space.
As with any business decision, though, office layouts should be carefully considered after developing and analyzing a cost-benefit analysis. While building and operating costs may be lower if you put every single employee right next to each other at long rows of workstations without barriers, you’ll likely pay far more on the backend due to decreased productivity and increased turnover.
So, of course, you shouldn’t implement sterile, symmetrical, cube farms or a similarly cramped, uncomfortable, highly micromanaged workstations like many lesser-developed countries. But you can still save on cost by not putting each and every manager in their own closed office. Comfortable, flexible, semi-open workspaces reap the cost-saving benefits without sacrificing efficiency and employee engagement. You need only spend money and allocate precious space to a few closed offices and meeting rooms for use-as-needed by any employee.
While cost savings and ease of supervision constituted the initial incentives for demolishing closed offices, the open office plan has grown in popularity in recent years for very different reasons. Corporations today realize that employees and managers that sit together and interact more on a daily basis tend to collaborate more, generating innovative business ideas and employing teamwork to dig into the details and develop solutions. Fewer barriers enable more communication and creativity, and companies have come to highly value those elements in the workplace.
Fostering a culture of collaboration is simply a practical thing to do for employee attraction and retention. Millennials today represent 1 out of every 3 employees, outnumbering Gen Xers since 2015. Deloitte found that one of the primary things Millennials look for in choosing where to work is a culture of collaboration – having managers tucked away in offices is the antithesis of fostering a collaborative work culture. If companies want to attract and retain top talent from the newest generation in the workforce, they need to adapt to changing workplace expectations.
Collaboration that leads to innovation is also absolutely essential in today’s economic environment. As explained in Forbes in 2017, innovation doesn’t simply refer to new inventions; innovation also means discovering new, more efficient and effective ways of doing things. Innovation doesn’t have to result in the next Google or iPhone to be valuable. In a highly globalized economy, companies have infinitely more options to outsource for cheaper labor or automate to reduce headcount. If their employees can find unique solutions to increase productivity, it can save the company the expense of looking elsewhere, negotiating contracts, and moving operations to realize those same cost savings. It also keeps local workers employed and the cities surrounding them vibrant.
Businessdictionary.com defines empowerment like this:
“A management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance. Empowerment is based on the idea that giving employees skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, as well as holding them responsible and accountable for outcomes of their actions, will contribute to their competence and satisfaction.”
Empowerment was NOT in our workplace lexicon 20 years ago. Workers were expected to show up, do their routine assigned tasks, and go home. There was a clear status barrier between managers and employees, reinforced by managers working in private offices. Employees kept their heads down and concentrated on only the tasks they were explicitly assigned and systematically trained to do. Should a personal conversation spring up over cubical walls, everyone fell silent and quickly sat down when the manager walked by.
Today’s workplace simply cannot function this way. Training consultants, Guthrie Jensen, explain that Millennials in the workplace are not intimidated by management; they crave and expect to get guidance and feedback from them. They are not motivated by the threat of being caught while not appearing busy. Instead, they are self-motivated if they have clear and ambitious goals to attain. They need purpose, and they need recognition and accountability to stay on track, but they would walk out the door from an environment of micromanagement.
The radically different view Millennials have of management, especially compared to Baby Boomers, means they fully expect and WANT their managers to work out in the open alongside them. They want to collaborate with their boss and coworkers alike, and they don’t expect this open environment to lead to micromanagement. Managers cannot hide from the masses in closed offices, reinforcing perceived boundaries, if they want to empower their employees; and today’s employees won’t work long where they are not empowered.
The benefits to be gained from each manager having their own closed office are outdated and no longer relevant in the modern workplace. Fostering a culture of formality and high-power distance is counter-productive in today’s workplace. And all employees, not just managers, sometimes just need a quiet place behind closed doors for privacy or focused work and deep thinking, which often leads to innovative ideas that only benefit the company.
The advantages of a relatively open office plan without assigned offices for managers are ones every business must strive for in today’s environment. Of course, fewer offices will result in lowered costs. But more importantly, having employees and managers working in closer proximity on a daily basis will foster more spontaneous conversation, collaboration, creativity, and innovation.
New ways of working demand that companies empower their employees by providing the necessary resources for them to succeed, a culture of collaboration and innovation, clear goals and purpose, and recognition. Employees must feel encouraged to take the lead and develop new ideas. Reinforcing differences in status between employees and managers by assigning offices works against this goal. Employees today, especially in a time of low unemployment, will not hesitate to leave a company that tries to enforce a strict hierarchical environment with clear authority figures and power dynamics.
The workplace of the future must embrace egalitarianism, openness, flexibility, comfort, creativity, and empowerment. The open office of today is meant to make employees feel more welcome, energized, and free to innovate rather than just to save the company a buck.
Yes, you should avoid assigning offices to individual managers. But don’t drift all the way to the other end of the spectrum by embracing a completely open office plan with no walls or doors in sight.
Flexibility is key in office planning today. According to Forbes, the four types of areas you need to make available for use by all of your team members, employees and managers alike, are spaces in which to:
If you provide this variety of environments in which employees and managers can work whatever way is best for them and the tasks they’re doing that day, you’re doing just fine.
Employees can work from anywhere they can get Wi-Fi or a cell signal, be it their couch, a coffee shop, or a park. So, if you want them to feel good about coming to YOUR place of business, you need to make it welcoming, comfortable, and flexible. Encourage them to move to different areas depending on what they’re currently working on and where they feel most productive for their tasks that day. Managers should have the same freedom to move around and be encouraged not to sequester themselves in private rooms too often.
By creating a flexible workspace where managers and employees cross paths all the time, you will reap the benefits of increased collaboration, creativity, and innovation. Increased productivity and robust solutions born of joint decision-making will please your shareholders and customers alike. And you will be positioned to attract and retain top talent in a tight labor market, showing that you are adjusting to the times and empowering your employees to succeed.
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