A Sense of Place

Earlier this week I attended an event on the Future of the Amazing Workplace, sponsored by Cross Knowledge, that got me thinking about how changing a work space impacts productivity.

Jacob Morgan, the author of Employee Experience Advantage, introduced three components that he says will “win the war for talent”: work spaces employees want; tools & technology they need; and a culture they can celebrate (to paraphrase the subtitle of his book).

During the event, I gazed out the windows of the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center – you could see for miles – and reflected on how an office-view like that would affect your productivity.  It was beautiful and amazing, but the people on the ground were invisible from that height, and most of the neighboring buildings seemed diminished and unimportant.  If you worked with that view every day – and if your office has a view like that, I imagine that home probably has a similar distant view – it would be easy to forget that the actions you take in that space have consequences to the rest of us on the ground.

A sense of place affects you.  I remember working for one woman who, upon moving into her office, immediately hung art, purchased lamps so she could turn off the fluorescent lights, and agonized over drapes for the windows. I thought it was odd, but eventually, I took the same amount of care in creating my work space. People who dropped by or came to meetings in my office often remarked how calming it was. (And I always thought to myself: calm, like the eye of a hurricane.)

Consider the math: there are 168 hours in a week.  If you’re getting enough sleep, you’re probably spending 56 of those hours sleeping, which leaves 112 waking hours.  And you’re spending 40-60 hours a week – about half those hours – in your office.  You’ve taken care decorating your home to make it a place you want to spend time in – why wouldn’t you take just as much care on the place where you’re spending the other half of your waking time?  There’s a reason that one of the first policies that Lily Tomlin changed in 9-5 encouraged the office workers to personalize their spaces.

There’s a lot of research about how space impacts productivity, especially with the trend towards open office space.  When I first read about the benefits of an open office plan, I tried to improve my team’s productivity by combining their cubicles into one big cube, so they could work together.  (Just when you think you’ve made every mistake in the book, new opportunities are always being invented.)  Since telling me that it wasn’t a good idea didn’t work, the team took the initiative to demonstrate it by putting up bulletin boards and other objects to recreate the privacy they needed so they could be productive.  You may laugh at my error, but around the same time, the company remodeled several floors and installed new, upgraded cubicles, with beautiful wood finishes… and clear glass panels to create a more open feel.  Within a month, those panels were covered by bulletin boards, pashminas, table runners, photo collages, artwork, stacks of books, or other privacy screens.

I’m always curious when I visit people’s offices to see how the space is organized and how that impacts the people working there.  Sometimes, the design is deliberate, like the service provider that I visited in Atlanta: a cubicle farm, spotless, and so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.  (I would have gone insane.)  In Silicon Valley, an office I visited had no dividers between desks and the conference rooms had glass walls – no secrets there – but there was a hum of activity that was reassuring.  The same company’s New York office had cubicles at first but, over time, they started taking down the walls between the programmers – and the programmers quickly replaced the walls with posters, white boards, and artwork.  I commented on the open plan initiative to the marketers who sat nearby and they confided that they were worried about the impact on their productivity when it spread to them.  I also visited a floor of the Google office in New York – it felt very organic, with a long twisty enclosed hallway like a branch, with intimate seating areas interspersed like pea pods along the way.  Organic, but deliberately so.

Other office layouts are not so deliberate.  I recently visited a friend’s union to drop off a form.  At first I wasn’t sure I had entered the right place – there was a big open space, very dingy, with old boxes piled up as if they had been there for years, and a beat up couch and some mismatched chairs. (Think impromptu teen clubhouse, not lobby.)  Out of sight in the back, as far from the elevator as possible and around a corner, an area was partitioned off for cubicles where the staff worked, but there was no receptionist, and no way to know who to approach for help.  The people closest to the entrance glanced over and turned their backs, indicating that whoever was going to help me, it wouldn’t be them. How disconcerting for a visitor, and how disruptive for the workers.  I wanted to chase them all out and remodel it myself!

Karen Stephenson, originator of the Theory of Trust, talks about identifying different type of social networkers in the workplace: connectors – people who connect ideas and other people from disparate parts of the organization that would probably not otherwise engage; hubs – people who bring ideas into their work groups; and gatekeepers, people who control (or impede) the flow of information and action from one area to another. She developed a method for mapping an organization’s flow to identify the people in those three roles, and then recommended changes in the physical layout of the space to enhance the workflow.  For example, putting a connector in a more central location could enable them to connect more people; or  relocating a gatekeeper who was impeding the effective flow of information to a place where information didn’t have to pass them to get to the next level could free up roadblocks.

Changing a person’s work space impacts productivity.  At the most basic level, unhappy people spend so much time around the water cooler complaining about the change, you can literally watch the payroll running down the drain.  But noise, flow, and interruptions also impact productivity.  I’m sure you’ve heard the statistic that, when you are interrupted, it takes about 25 minutes to reach the same level of productivity that you had before the interruption. And a poorly organized office, that requires you to leave for meetings 10 minutes early to get to the meeting room on time, also wastes time.

I am curious and would like to hear about how your work space affects your productivity: what layout changes would make your work space more productive?

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