Office space: status or work?

Changing office space, for example moving to a different building, or refitting an existing building, is an event that is much beyond the relocation itself. Thought through carefully and aligned to working practices and the business objectives and strategy it can lead to major changes in the way work is done, the cultural norms and practices, and employee motivation and productivity.

Unfortunately many companies fail to see the opportunities, beyond 'getting rid of paper' – replicating in their new space the things they had in the old space but with newer furniture, different wall colors, and (in better cases) less paper.

One of the reasons for this is to do with positional power and feelings of 'entitlement'. Many senior people feel they are 'entitled' to a large office with impressive furniture, while the junior staff will do just fine in an 8 x 8' cubicle with high partitions – the ubiquitous 'cube farm' approach. This does not square with global trends that are forcing different working patterns, and require the ability to think of space in terms of working practices and not status.

In some professional areas: legal, HR – the demand for personal space ('my name on this door') comes from a perception that they do confidential work and need to own space in which to do it. When challenged with other options to do confidential work without compromising the privacy aspects – for example using private space, either at home or in the office, clustering with people also doing confidential work but where there is no breach of confidentiality if they are collaborating – say on legal cases, the argument becomes more personal.

An piece of research reported in Science Daily reports (in relation to production lines) that

Workers, who were performing similar tasks, were positively influenced by the performance on a fellow worker who completed his task more efficiently.

Schultz [the lead researcher] found that an individual's performance level may have a direct effect on what becomes "a good day's work" in that some members may change their work behavior to match the output of their co-worker.

Unlike the researchers who hypothesize that people copy behavior from others (which I wrote about on June 29 2010. This research

ties the results of their study to the principle of equity theory, or the idea that motivation comes from fair treatment — a good day's work for a good day's pay. "The workers may think 'we're not really connected, so I have no real reason to care about how fast you are working. But I'm a human being and I do care, and I do notice,'" said Schultz, who concluded that is possible for "people [to] change based on what they see."

Schultz also noted that the design of the workspace is equally important in influencing productivity, yet is an aspect that is ignored when designing new plants or redesigning workspaces. The key is to arrange the area so that workers are facing each other when performing their tasks, rather than facing away from each other, or in same direction. Allowing the workers to observe and monitor the speed of their co-workers is the necessary catalyst for the behavioural change to occur, he says.

"You don't have to say anything, you don't have to do anything, you don't have to put a flashing light over their head, said Schultz."Just make sure people can see each other and allow the workers to do what they would naturally do."

"You want your team to have not just good or average — or even great players — that can play well no matter where they are. To get that extra bit, you want to find the good or great players who will perform better around other great players."

Assuming generalization to office work (a good follow-on study for someone) the notion of cube farms, personally 'owned' offices, and space use based on hierarchy mitigates against learning, collaboration, and productivity. Would this argument sway someone who is desperately fighting for his own swish office in new space? Try it and see.