Why Office Space is an important topic for HR

Like most of us who have been in the workforce for a few decades, I remember the transition of workplaces from offices and cubicles to open space plans where employees were placed right next to each other. Sometimes with only a three-to-four-inch partition between each workspace, we asked our people to produce more together, providing white boards in communal spaces so all work was collaborative, engaged and produced with group consensus.

Business said it was a great thing. Our bottom line said that from a hard build out perspective, it was a fantastic thing. The employees and managers that had to work in it? Perhaps not so much.

In a FastCompany article, they claim that the tides are turning and doors and walls are coming back. Managers are frustrated with having to take private conversations to coffee shops, and sensitive moments are never private in a glass-walled conference room where everyone can see what’s happening. While transparency is a good thing in most aspects of business, but I believe most HR professionals will agree that some things are better left unseen by the general group at large.

In my forthcoming book, I talk a lot about the concept of capacity, the ability for a company to remain agile and productive regardless of the business climate. How the workforce works together to achieve corporate goals is a big part of that idea, and the configuration of the spaces where this work is accomplished plays a large role. I do believe there is a time and place for communal working, where people can gather together to share ideas and solve problems collaboratively. But I also believe that people need space to think, absorb, and work in solitude, and a return to spaces where that can happen in peace and quiet isn’t a bad thing. If you walk the walls of these open workspaces today, you see that many people are working with headphones on or in their ears, creating walls of sound around their minds.

The message appears to me to be quite clear: if workplaces won’t create the walls so employees can create in solitude, the employees will do it for them.

However, the question of workplace configuration is not always about desks and chairs: let’s also stop to consider that many companies are experiencing the migration to workplaces without walls. More and more contract labor is being sought and many work from home offices or remotely. Work teams collaborate across geographical boundaries; plenty of teams work together regularly from buildings, home offices, and remote locations with Wi-Fi all over the world. Sometimes, the only wall that’s necessary to create privacy is disconnecting from corporate chat systems or a phone call.

I believe the good news is that we live in a time where companies have plenty of options available to configure the best environments for their specific needs. There is no “one size fits all” option that works for all corporate needs, and it’s up to you and your management team to determine the right mix that works for you. Perhaps it’s a little bit of all of it for some, or one configuration that serves as a solution for another company across the board. But I do believe it’s time to take the temperature of the workplace and determine if you’re best configured to get the end result you desire. Use the tools at your disposal to gather information and make the best choice for your corporate needs.

Because for every collaborative effort and for all our progressive thinking, there will be a time where every person will want to effect a basic human right to produce their best work: privacy. If we make it easier to achieve, that’s a few more moments of productivity saved…and possible some turnover prevented.