Over the years in various management roles I was regularly part of a discussion about something as trivial as “office layout”. Very often the argument was around closed offices versus open space. Often I heard that open space is too noisy and people don’t perform well because they cannot concentrate on their task. At the other hand closed offices don’t create feeling of one team and lead to low performance as people shirk the work. As usually in similar situations arguments of both sides have some merit and what it comes down is a company culture. Since I’m a strong believer in open space/floor plans let me debunk some of the arguments for the managerial offices.
Even in companies that value transparency, teamwork and common sense of ownership there seems to be one constant: manager gets his office. The higher the manager the bigger and more secluded office he gets. This is a very interesting notion and I have to ask “Why are leaders hiding?” and more importantly “How can you expect to lead anyone if you are hidden and your troops don’t see you all day long?” Let me go through some of the arguments proponents of “managerial offices” use and provide an alternative thought.
1. I need the office so everyone sees I’m the boss (it means status)
Shouldn’t people find who the boss is by other means then looking into the office? Yes, I understand that the ancient kings got their palaces, crown jewels, and other means to show who the boss is, but in modern society and especially in modern company these trinkets lose value. Daniel H. Pink describes in his work “Drive” a notion he calls “motivation 3.0”. Based on his research and research of others, he concludes that keeping the team motivated by letting them do interesting and meaningful work is much more powerful than using the old carrot and stick approach. If you as a leader don’t use the same means to motivate your subordinate as kings used to, then you shouldn’t need the throne either. People appreciate you more if they see you as someone more equal, who can help when needed, who is approachable, can be used to bounce ideas off and who gets his respect by being part of the team.
2. I need office because I have lots of one-on-one conversations with my team members
Why should a leader have so many confidential one-on-one meetings? Shouldn’t the whole team have the same information if they are asked to work together towards the common goal? If these are regular project status reports wouldn’t it make bigger sense to walk to the team and talk to everyone at their workstation? They can all jump-in and think collectively about your question and all have the same understanding of your expectations. It gives the team a feeling of inclusion and leads to bigger transparency.
3. I need office to have confidential meetings
It is a variation on the same topic. Yes, there may be a need for some “management level” meetings, for giving really personal feedback on performance and others. But really, how often you need this? And for these relatively rare occasions (let’s say one hour a day) use of a common meeting room is enough. This concept of course leads to office layout that has sufficient number of small suitable meeting rooms.
4. I need a space to think
Agreed. As a leader you need to do your share of strategic thinking. The question is how much of that is needed at each managerial level and how much of that should be one-man-effort instead of team one. As a leader, you want to have your ideas challenged by the team to stay realistic. Moreover, when I think about when and where I got some of my best ideas it was usually a side-effect of working on another problem or having a discussion with someone. And if you really need some time for myself why not to put headset on your ears (or use similar trick) and “hide” temporarily in your spot in open space or a find a small meeting room.
5. I must be able to work without interruption
Too bad, you are probably in a wrong job. You may need some time to prepare, write up a presentation, prepare budget, and other administrative things but most of your job is communication. And communication leads to interruptions. What worked like a charm for me is to put headset on my ears. Anyone can see I’m not available for chat, while I’m still part of the team and don’t hide in the office. Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t abuse this too much otherwise it would be worse than being in the office as people my see you as being rude. And remember. As a leader your sole purpose is to lead and be there for your team and “working without interruption” doesn’t really fit that description.
6. I have visits by partners/vendors/customers and I need to host them
Yes, you need to host them, but why in your own office? Aren’t there others who may have visits from vendors, for example your assistant dealing with office equipment? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a meeting room that can be shared by everyone? It would improve image of the company, anyone from your team who needs to host someone would feel better and you still get the space for your fancy meetings.
7. Things work differently in my country/culture
I understand that there might be also some cultural aspects in play. There are cultures where being able to show the status plays a role in management. There are cultures where it might be easier for people to talk to you when you are not surrounded by the rest of the team. If that is the case you may want to meet on some middle grounds. A good idea might be to sit in the open space with the team but in the corner, have a bit higher partition or a bit more space around you. It gives you some of the tools your culture may require for you to be efficient and you still don’t need to hide in office… and again, everything boils down to the company culture you are trying to create.
What are your thoughts? Do you have your own office? What advantages it brings and is there something that you believe it takes away?
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