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Who’s the Boss in Your Open Office?

by Keith Fentress / April 5, 2018

I was recently visiting a client in an open office setting. She was giving me a tour of their newly designed space and led me to the workstation she reserved for the day. It was a standard open office workstation with a decent-sized work surface, large monitor, and a place for her to plug in a laptop and cell phone. She then said, “My manager’s workstation is over there.” Her manager’s workstation looked exactly the same as hers. “What’s the difference between a regular workstation and a manager workstation,” I asked? She replied, “Managers have permanent workstations and do not have to reserve them in advance.” I thought to myself, “Wow, times have changed.”

What Happened to the Corner Office?

In 1973, the Sears Tower was built. It was the largest office building of its time and full of corner offices with sweeping views. Forty-five years ago, this was the blueprint that architects followed for enclosed offices. During that era, the corner office signified status. It was a symbol of success that we aspired to acquire.

However, the concept of closed private offices has lost a lot of ground over the years. In fact, nearly 70% of employees in America are now working in open offices. So, without the corner office, are there no longer clear status symbols?

Status in the Open Office

You can easily see the new notion of office status in action at many Silicon Valley tech companies, which have transitioned to an open office and a flatter organization structure. For instance, Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, doesn't even have his own personal office. Instead, he works in an open workspace with his employees. Inclusivity among all ranks in an organization is the defining characteristic of status in the open office, rather than status being reserved for managers only.

This quote from Tracy Brower, Director of Human Dynamics and Work at Herman Miller, does a great job of summing up the new notion of status in open offices:

“The freedom to come and go as I please, being able to choose where I want to sit, getting assigned to a key account, posting to social media about the free organic Thai food in the cafeteria – these are all ways that people sense status now."

Some Find the Transition Difficult

The open office trend has been met with mixed reactions. One common criticism from those who dislike open offices is the perceived loss of status. Some senior executives have expressed concern when transitioning from their traditional office building to a new open office building:

"I’ve worked really hard to get a private office, and now you’re telling me we’re going to move to an environment where I really don’t have an office."

"I don’t have the same sense of stability."

The old notion of status is still important to many managers. However, identifying status in the open office is much more nuanced than seeing who is working in the corner office. Therefore, an open office manager needs to be flexible and embrace both the traditional and new notions of status. Here’s how.

Recognizing Managers

One way to promote status is to have a prominently featured recognition and awards wall. The wall could include a segment just for managers to present certifications and awards. There could also be photographs of the managers so that they are more recognizable among the sea of workstations.

Providing Space Amenities

Some elements of the traditional office environment can be incorporated into the open office. For example, you can still provide managers with more space. Some have a larger workstation, while others still hold on to smaller private offices. Having an assigned space, like my client’s manager that I mentioned above, is also a way of recognizing the manager. I have also seen:

      ·   Workstations where managers have more filing space, drawers, and/or shelving
      ·   Assigned workstations located right next to windows or adjacent to conference rooms
      ·   High-walled workstations for more privacy
      ·   Workstations with a small built-in conference area to one side
      ·   Larger chairs
      ·   Higher quality workstations, e.g., workstation with wood finishes

Promoting Change

In the end, like Mark Zuckerberg, a manager does not need a larger office to be recognized by an organization. The manager has a job, title, and benefits package that should align with his/her level of responsibility. The manager can also receive recognition through leadership opportunities and/or serving as a coach or mentor to other employees. There are many internal ways of recognition other than space.

Manage the Change

The issue is that space has been seen in the past as an amenity that signifies one’s level of responsibility and recognition. Removing space as a method of recognition requires managers to adjust to a new culture and a new way of working in an open office layout. In my opinion, this adjustment requires change management. Organizations moving to an open office should invest in their managers through coaching and training to help them make the adjustment. By doing so, their space can be reduced without the harsh feelings that something has been taken away or that managers have less value. In the end, this will not only help your managers adjust, it will keep them happier and more productive during and after the move to an open office.

Tags: Open Office Design

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include change management, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys adventure travel and outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.