Where Have All the People Gone? Part II

As a follow-on to Part I of this series, Bob Fox explores how the workplace has responded to massive shifts in our cultural and technological underpinnings.

The open office concept has been pretty well established.  Most companies had a combination of open and private offices. They were divided by seniority, with the senior managers getting the private offices and staff getting workstations. These were basically done as a one size fits all strategy that only really served to reduce cost.The openness provided the opportunity for collaboration and learning, but it wasn’t really set up to effectively support those functions. It was still “my workstation”, I had a little less privacy and a smaller footprint.

Hoteling was introduced in the 90’s and the idea of an unassigned workstation was introduced. It was cultural shock too many, but had business justification. It was easily managed, that was on a first come – first serve basis, costs were considerably less, I was free to work where and with whom I wanted; it promoted working with a team or collaborating with those I should be collaborating with. It broke down the hierarchy of reporting structures (not the reporting structures) and the physical location associated with it. The supervision and reporting did not necessarily align with the flow of work. This began to address the concept of distributed work and essentially people were enabled to become much more mobile.

Meeting Area vs. Cubicles

Hoteling was a very advanced strategic concept that introduced the idea of the workspace as a productivity tool; which had traditionally been viewed as a fixed overhead expense. You sign a lease for a long time and pay the rent each month – nothing to connect it to specific functions, other than a department, or to performance expectations. We still suffer a great deal from that type of thinking today. Accounting practices are slower than organizational culture to change and so we will be faced with that struggle for some time into the future.

The challenge to flexible work environments in the 90’s was the technology did not fully support the concept of office worker mobility. Even inside the office it was expensive and a difficult to manage, new software was necessary to support it, and another layer of management was added to the operation. A lot of people tried it, but didn’t fully grasp the issues and struggled, often unsuccessfully. Over time, and now with the cloud, connecting people and networks became easier and people started to gain significant efficiencies in housing office workers and at the same time were also much more effective.  Accessibility to specific information and tools was more intuitive and younger people were more comfortable using it, having grown up with the technology.

Collaboration Mix
Collaboration Mix

Even today, the workplace is shifting rapidly to become more of a collaborative work area. If you think about the considerations above there is no reason to go into the office anymore unless you are going to meet, manage or collaborate with others. You simply don’t need to, everything is at your finger tips no matter where you are.

The trick is that as things become more complex it requires more individuals to become a part of the process. Things like large projects which require complex design and assemblage of systems often require vast team of experts. These teams will need to interact and communicate, frequently and in real time. Both the technology and the workplace must support that.

That type of activity cannot occur in a private office. As a result anything that impedes the flow of that information and building of knowledge is a competitive disadvantage. The only way to build knowledge is through the interaction of people. Walls, partitions, and even people – if they slow or impede the flow and building of information – will be eliminated.

Private Offices with Mesh Wall Separators
Private Offices with Mesh Wall Separators

The private office is just not effective any more. You can’t manage effectively from that type of space today; there is too much going on outside of that environment to effectively participate and lead. You must be where the knowledge is.

Private spaces are necessary, there is still work that must be done individually, that requires minimal distraction, privacy and high levels of concentration. Research, reading, writing, thinking, calculating, reviewing and renewal types of activities all require seclusion from the high levels of interaction where innovation and the exchange of ideas occur.

Low Wall Panels
Open Office Environment

The space for these activities should be available when required; it should be unassigned; and used on a short term basis.  These activities are completed then the individuals must engage or re-engage in collaborative team oriented work in order to communicate and extract the full benefit of their work.

Open workstations as well, must be reconsidered, we are seeing new research that suggests that open work areas depending on the work and the culture, might not stimulate the communication and the collaboration that is desired. Individuals out of respect, might not interact for fear of disturbing someone they perceive to be busy. Hierarchical organizations also might not promote the necessary interaction with senior individuals.

Open space has often been allocated in or adjacent to circulation areas in an effort to promote interaction, but this area is not effective and as a result is rarely used. If you consider the tools that are necessary for collaboration;  and the environment that promotes it; an enclosed or at least partially enclosed area is much better suited to promote the personal interaction necessary to build trust and healthy interaction. People need some segregation from the open flow to communicate effectively.

Meeting Room
Vertical Wall Panels

Vertical walls have all but been eliminated in the open environment. Vertical walls have been a source of information and knowledge exchange. We all like to pin stuff up. The stuff that is related to our project or related to necessary communication generally got pinned up somewhere. With a reduced number of walls it is harder for that communication to occur. This again speaks to some form of enclosure that is necessary for healthy interaction and effective team performance that is necessary in a competitive business environment.

There are many considerations necessary for effective space, and it comes down to balancing often competing values to build an effective work environment.

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