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The New World Of Work - Is The Office Of Future No Office At All?

It is not exactly breaking the news that the office workspace is changing.

The move away from the traditional office to the open workspace has continued to accelerate. A recent Harvard Business Review article “Why You Should Rotate Office Seating Assignments” by Cody O’Loughlin caught my attention because it discussed how a company has moved to having no permanent seating assignments and instead rotates everyone once a quarter.

In the HBR article, HubSpot Chief People Officer Katie Burke discussed (“It Makes the Company Less Clique-y”) how her Boston-based marketing-software company with nearly 2,000 employees rotates seat assignments every three months.

From the start, we wanted to be collaborative and antihierarchical and to prevent “corner office syndrome,” where executives are isolated from employees and certain teams don’t engage with others . So we’ve always had open offices.
We also do a seat reshuffle roughly every three months, though that can vary by team and office location. The point is to eliminate perceptions of power imbalances.
The reshuffles also emphasize that change is constant, so you need to be adaptable . And we want people to get out of their entrenched social patterns so that they will collaborate and learn. If I’m in marketing, on our blog team, and suddenly I’m sitting next to a sales rep and listening to her calls, I’m going to know a lot more about how to explain what we offer.
It’s a pretty time-intensive collaboration among our employee-experience, administrative, and facilities teams. But we think the benefits far outweigh the costs.
Everyone has a laptop, and we do promote flexibility and remote work. We have some people who have never come into any office, but some teams encourage folks to come in at least three or four days a week.
We try to be transparent about what is expected in each group. We also have spaces in our offices that people can move to for calls or intensive individual work: nomad desks in less busy areas, quiet rooms, and soundproof pods.
There are people who question the practicality of it for a company at the scale we are at now. Some see it as annoying or a nuisance to move away from a friend or someone they’re working with on a project. But it’s been part of our culture since the start.
It makes the company less cliquey. And it keeps us all from getting complacent. One of our strong messages to employees is: The day you think you’ve got it all figured out is the day we lose as a company. Physically shifting your seat is a good visual reminder of that.

I have visited the HubSpot headquarters and it is an impressive space. The article got me thinking about where the modern office is headed.

The office is not your home or your library anymore.

You can stop thinking about decorations and keeping an extensive number of paper files. This will never work when you have to move every three months.This will no doubt not be music to manufacturers of filing and storage products (actually they already are very well aware of the systemic decline in unit sales).

I have to laugh when I think about an internship I had during business school at Nationwide Insurance where I, along with four other interns, was not given an office and we had to carry all of our belongings in a box and move around the building looking for a vacant desk or conference room. (to my younger readers - that was old school when there were no laptops or tablets). It seems that was once old is now new again when it comes to office mobility

Is The Desktop Computer Obsolete? Speaking of products in decline, the mobile office is not a place where a desktop computer is going to flourish. Phones, tablets, and laptops seem to have taken over as the information processing vehicles of choice in the modern workplace.

What Will It Take To Be Successful In An Open/No Office Workspace? Achieving peak productivity will require the discipline to block out all of the distractions, carryover noise, and smells (really Amanda – brussel spouts?). I Googled the question "how to stay productive when you work in an open office" and got 983,000 search results offering advice ranging from noise-canceling headphones to doing everything you can to work from home.Needless to say, the challenges are real and they are not going away.

Is My Company Subtly Telling Us That There Are No Permanent Positions? This is an interesting question. The obvious answer is that there are really no permanent positions anymore and that we are all expendable. I think the non-assigned office space is sending a slightly different message that nothing - organizational structure, product platform, people - should be considered permanent. As Katie Burke at Hubspot said:

One of our strong messages to employees is: The day you think you’ve got it all figured out is the day we lose as a company. Physically shifting your seat is a good visual reminder of that.

What Are The New Power Symbols In A Workplace That Does Not Have Corner Offices? This is an interesting question that I do not have an answer for. I remember in my corporate days that the size of your office was a clear message to the organization on where you ranked. I remember that the precise number ceiling tiles inside an office were specified along with the appropriate furniture. Today, those overt signals do not exist.

I read an interesting article written by Drew Himmelstein titled "There Goes The Corner Office" with the interesting sub-title:

Spotting status used to be simple: you looked for the biggest office with the most windows and best views. Today status is no less important to how and why we work, but it manifests itself in increasingly diverse ways.

In the article, he quotes Tracy Brower, Director of Human Dynamics and Work at Herman Miller who provided the following insights on why the corner office is disappearing:

... an assigned private office—closed off, and underutilized—sounds ideal until you look at the bigger picture. “Status used to separate us from others. Today we better understand that you actually experience status within groups—this also contributes to why we’re seeing more and more open office environments.”

The new status involves recognition, the freedom you choose assignment and workplaces, less management control and oversight.

While in a traditional office the perks that came with status were available only to an elite few, new ways of working and new workplace designs show that status can manifest democratically—and at a group, or organizational level.
“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,” Brower says. 

How Will Introverts Function In These Wide Open Spaces ( aka - Trevor, enough with all of the “collaboration” and “sharing”. It is draining!)? It is interesting to note that the open office space seems to be tailor-made for the extroverts who gain energy with human interactions. How will the introverts (of which 35% of the US self-report that they have some level of introversion) perform? I went to the best voice for introverts today - Susan Cain - to see if she had any advice (of course she does!). Here are some tips that she has on how introverts can succeed in the open office.

  • Take more lunch breaks and coffee breaks by yourself (to allow the battery to recharge).
  • Create a signal to let others know that you are concentrating (hopefully it does not involve a middle finger).
  • Create a sense of private space within your personal space.
  • Note what times of the day and days of the week are typically quieter in the office, and use those times for more difficult work or even downtime for yourself.
  • Book a small meeting room on a semi-regular basis, but don’t invite anyone else (this was a favorite of hers) 

Welcome to the new world of work.

Patrick Lynch is the President - Southeast Region for CMP, a talent and transition firm in the business of developing people and organizations across the full talent lifecycle – from executive search and leadership development, to organization development and outplacement/career transition support.