At the end of the day, workplace supports business operations. It’s the place where employees perform the tasks that keep the company operational and earn the company revenues. Done well and everything is a well-oiled machine, done poorly and activities can grind to a halt.
Operations that are running smoothly often perform like a well-practiced orchestra. Everyone knows their cues without needing to reference the conductor. One Action 1 happens, Action 2 immediately follows. When Action 2 is complete, Process 3 kicks in. From Process 3, Report A and B are immediately generated. There’s a tempo to everything that happens that allows for an expected outcome.
When everyone is not on the same page, Action 2 may complete without Process 3 kicking in. Only when a downstream manager yells loudly enough does that process kick in. That could be 30 mins, 2 days or 2 weeks later than it should have. That time delay is the proof of an organization out of sync.
Workplace plays a critical role in how all of this comes about. When people are comfortable in their environment they are more likely to be proactive. Discomfort leads people to worry about themselves and their personal situation ahead of other considerations. Similarly, a well-constructed workplace provides opportunities for people to more easily work together on getting to the outcomes of each step. Whether this is through an open-plan design or through a more traditional office is completely separate from everything else.
Whether this is through an open-plan design or through a more traditional office is completely separate from everything else. It’s simply that the workplace must support the operation. Some companies have built nimble operations that can adapt to any type of environment whereas other companies are much more structured to a single way of working.
I’ve worked in real estate for over a decade now. Every single year I have been in this industry I come across some new and novel approach to defining real estate’s impact on employee productivity. It’s always worth a laugh to me to see various workplace vendors trying to give a productivity increase number associated with sit/stand desks or collaborative areas. There’s simply no studies or numbers that can prove or disprove this effect while also accounting for all other variables. It’s just not possible.
Yet every year someone new takes a crack at it. It only makes sense. If you can be the one that cracks the code for proving the impact of real estate and workplace on employee productivity, you would be in line for millions of dollars of new business and global acclaim. If you can absolutely prove that your desk designs improve productivity by 10%, companies would be falling all over themselves to implement it.
But alas, that’s not how this world works. Productivity is such a nebulous and changing concept that has different definitions for every single employee in the company. What improves one person’s productivity may kill another’s.
What does this mean to you? Carefully question anyone that claims that can improve your productivity through workplace changes. It may happen, it may not – but it will likely never be proven. All you can really do is focus on making a workplace flexible enough to meet the needs of many different types of employees while also aligning the workplace with company culture. If you can achieve these two things, productivity should follow. Just be careful thinking you can prove it.
I was in a workshop recently where the word neighborhood was used a lot. The context was the workplace and how to promote cross-team collaboration. The solution our workplace partner had given us were neighborhoods.
There is nothing particularly unique about thinking of the workplace as a series of adjoined neighborhoods. This thinking goes back a long way and doesn’t even need to be tied in with a modern, open workplan. What got me really thinking about it though was the discussion of it from a colleague perspective and not just a seat layout. The workplace as neighborhood allows for us to think differently about how people work within an office.
I’m going to own up that I’m a bit behind on the most recent thinking on this topic so it’s possible that many in the industry and sitting there laughing about how far behind I am. But I’m guessing there is a large group that, like me, may not have been exposed to this yet. So for their (and my own) benefit I’m going to keep going.
The beauty of neighborhoods (geographically speaking) is that they don’t have firm edges. Maybe today they are bounded by a particular street but the reality is that tomorrow the neighborhood may have crossed over culturally. Neighborhoods are collective groups of people that are located together geographically which causes them to experience many shared events, allowing them to think in similar patterns. Some neighborhoods are big and diverse. Others are small and personal.
In the workplace, the exact same is true. Some groups of coworkers will grow and include 20 or more people that enjoy a shared drink after work every week with an interchanging group of people that are as much socially connected as professionally. Other neighborhoods may only be 2 people that happen to keep the systems on and running and their introverted natures keep them from branching out into something bigger.
Setting up the workplace to encourage soft boundaries that are easily crossed and easily can quickly and efficiently promote a one team mentality. This serves to more readily allow people from different groups to work directly together but also to allow the many micro-cultures in the office to move closer to a single norm.
I’ve been involved in a few workplace transformation projects in my career and all of them (without exception) begin with managers saying that it will never work for their team. “Sure, in principle, it could work for everyone else, but my team is different. We are all in the office every day, we’re already collaborative and changing how we do things will cost the company money.”
Whether managers intentionally don’t know the habits of their team or simply misunderstand how the work gets done, I’ve never encountered an initial meeting that went any other way. Even project sponsors and champions will fall back on the theory for their own “small” teams. It is an infallible rule of the workplace.
I’ve come to believe that most of this thinking comes down to incentives and expectations (don’t most things in life?). If a manager says that half of their team works from home 3 days a week yet there isn’t a work from home policy they could get in trouble from their bosses above them. If they delegate so much that they themselves work from home 4 days a week and don’t actually know how things happen in the office you get the same effect. Similarly, many teams may disguise their work patterns because they don’t want their boss to realize how often they work from places other than the office.
Much of it can also come down to the office safety net. Many people believe that as long as they have a desk with pictures of their family, pets, and vacations they have job security. Surely it is easier to lay off someone who isn’t assigned to a desk than someone who has a permanent seat? By keeping all the seats (regardless of impact on performance) they are protecting their people.
What they refuse to realize until after it is all said and done is that new workplaces often support teams better and create more flexibility. They don’t realize that refusing to participate comes off like they are going against corporate strategy (what real estate group drives through a workplace transformation without executive blessing?).
There is a lot of anger and dissatisfaction in the working world toward open plan offices. For those not up on what open plan is, it is the office design with no private offices, workstations that have half-panels so that you can see through the entire floor and often it features unassigned seating. The common dislike of it is that it usually leads to a louder office that isn’t conducive to heads down work that requires a lot of concentration. Many also argue that it leads to too much idle chatter and lazing about the office since there is nothing separating you from your neighbor.
In defense of this design style, I always point out that no workplace design/strategy can work without an accompanying change in management philosophies around how work gets done. No one who does 10 hours of heads down programming should be forced to sit around people who talk on the phone all day in an open workstation. But at the same time, there is no reason to give that person a quiet, private office because their work is being performed in isolation. They should be enabled to work from home or from another quiet venue of their choice that supports their style of work. A private office is expensive, especially when everyone thinks they need one.
The biggest problem then becomes managers who refuse to let people work away from the office. There continues to be a management belief that you can only manage people that are right in front of you. My manager sits in England so I can personally attest that you don’t have to be present together daily for productivity. Yes, some people don’t work well from home because of their home environment or they don’t feel comfortable not being at the office. The open plan office can make accommodations to grant more secluded areas for work and that should be accounted for.
Additionally, there is a cultural change period that occurs when people first move to the open plan environment. It takes time for cultural norms to develop in a given office to understand when you can start a general conversation with those around you, whether you can take conference calls from just anywhere, whether parts of the office become dubbed “quiet zone,” etc. These norms eventually develop and give everyone an opportunity to work in ways that make them most comfortable.
Open offices also promote more collaboration. When I say collaboration, I don’t mean conversations. I mean that these offices encourage you to sit around people you are working with so that the simple 10 second questions can be asked when they occur that lead to quicker resolutions and solutions that would happen via email, text, phone or other indirect communications. Also, as the people you are working with change you can change your location to be around the new people that you are beginning to work with. Simply being around people encourages everyone to know each other better across small interactions ultimately making a team more familiar and comfortable with working with each other.
There are clear and obvious trade-offs of course. No single office design is perfect. Different organizations will always have different needs. The designs implemented for each should be individually tailored. But the concept itself is good, it just takes work to get right and to perform well within.
Isn’t that true of almost everything in life though?
It seems like alliteration around weekday names is a thing and since I’m in the CRE world the big one is Workplace Wednesday. It’s the day we get to celebrate everyone’s favorite place to be: the cube farm! Wait, just kidding.
It’s the day we get to celebrate that location where you work!
The concept of workplace has evolved rapidly over the past decade. It used to mean the office environment that consisted of 20% private offices, 80% cubicles (workstations?) and a scattering of conference rooms and the like. Today the workplace can mean almost anything:
- Traditional workplaces still exist all around.
- Non-traditional workplaces ranging from open plan offices to unassigned seating to anything an architect/workplace designer can dream up.
- Co-working spaces like WeWork where lots of businesses/random people work in the same place.
- Home offices (like the one I most often frequent).
- Starbucks/local coffee shop of choice.
Workplaces are now simply anywhere that you can work productively. The idea that we all work and collaborate the same way has firmly been discredited and the aim of giving different employees options to be most productive is firmly in place. People may not like the open office with unassigned seats because it can rightly be called noisy or chaotic but the intent is to give people more options on how they work. Over time every organization develops cultural norms to allow the office to work better and more efficiently for the different types of workers.
A truism of any job is: the work must get done. Sometimes that means delegating and sharing responsibilities. Sometimes it means having your day planned out in 15-minute increments. Sometimes it means being reactionary to the needs of others.
Most companies and managers like their employees to have set work hours such as Monday to Friday 8 to 5. They want their employees to feel like they can shut down on the weekends and have their dinner time be uninterrupted by the various things that could still be coming in. When you are in an office environment this timing also helps because it makes it easier to schedule the receptionists, janitorial staff, IT downtime, and all of the other various office support functions.
But the reality is that while most work tasks are most likely to occur within that window, because that’s when the vast majority of your colleagues are working, it’s certainly not absolutely true. There are occasional Wednesdays where you know beforehand there will be nothing at all required to keep the business going yet most people are still going to be at the office, in their chair, doing their best to look busy. Similarly, there will be Wednesdays where anything less than working from 6a to 8p can’t get everything completed that needs to get completed. Structured hours do not account for the natural ebbs and flows of how activities and tasks actually come in.
This is not to provide an answer to how to best manage the time of your employees but to give you a new lens to thinking about it as yet another variable that can be optimized to both make your employees happier and also make your business more efficient and productive. Office hours are often assumed to just “be what they are” but they do not have to be set in stone.