Status armo(u)r

This week the project that I'm working on has taken another turn. People are looking at office layout floor plans and realizing that, it's true, there are not going to be any private offices. Any space that looks like private offices i.e. one person in one room, is going to be shared and the room itself will be available for others to use if the designated occupants are off-site.

Lots of people are getting hot under the collar and wondering how they are going to get their jobs done. There are pleas for special consideration – usually to do with the nature of the work which seems reasonable to consider. The mitigating factors boil down to three: client demands, confidentiality requirements, and security (of documents, etc). However, all of these can be addressed without recourse to a private, single occupant office. Underlying this plea, and what may be driving it, is what is not stated. One reason for a private office that people don't talk about is that of position in the hierarchy. So, unspoken is the comment, 'I've worked n years, clawing my way up the corporate ladder, I'm at the top – or nearly – and I'm entitled to the corner office with the windows.'

Do people have a right to a private office space? Maybe if it is part of the formal employment contract. But that is not the case for most people. Lawyers are one group of professionals who know how to speak out (and defend) their desire for a private office each. An article in the ABA journal, Changing Spaces: Law firms (slowly) respond to egalitarian trends in office design, notes that law firms 'have traditionally allocated private office space to lawyers on the basis of hierarchy: secretaries in open pods, paralegals in cubicles, associates in offices by windows, partners in bigger offices, and senior partners in a large corner office.'

But pushed by various trends: nudges by clients to cut costs, need to attract and retain millennial generation workforce who expect a 'modern' office, collaboration, ubiquity of mobile technologies, and requests to offer flexible work patterns in response to employee demands lawyers are thinking again about their space. Eversheds, a UK law firm, has a new London Headquarters that successfully 'fosters a flexible workplace culture through what could prove to be potentially revolutionary architecture, design and technology.' The architects and designers created a physical workplace that stressed flexibility, openness and more team-oriented approaches to work. (See the full article here).

So even the most conservative of professions is willing to acknowledge that the various drivers pushing office space from traditional to mobile, may work towards not just savings on real estate costs and carbon footprint, but to increased employee health and well-being, enhanced knowledge sharing and collaboration between workforce members, easier involvement of other stakeholders (for example by opening up space for them to use), accelerated innovation, increased organizational flexibility, better attraction and retention of workers, breakdown of down hierarchies, clearer expression of organizational values and brand, and improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of business operations.

But is this feeling of entitlement to a private office the only factor in play? Looking around the organization I work in I see that both private, single occupancy offices and assigned cubicles are reflections of their owners tastes, experiences, and personality – just like their own homes are. There are pictures, certificates, soft toys, plaques, mottos, plants, books, clothing, electrical appliances, and other things. The oddest artefact I have come across (not in my current organization) was someone who had a small goldfish tank in her cubicle – with water and fish – and every evening when she left she covered it with a crocheted cover that she had made for it.

One colleague calls all this stuff 'status armor'. It is a neutral term, not derogatory. He explains it as displaying the accoutrements of who you are and how you want to be seen in the organization. This whole thing about status armor is a topic discussed as we are trying to work out how important it is for people (it seems it is in our organization), and how to allow for it in an environment where there is shared occupancy, hoteling, and unassigned seating. I got an email about it from someone the other day:

'Quick question: how do you all handle award plaques and personal pictures people like to have at assigned desks? Pictures I figure may not be too big a deal to have people let go – but work project awards are supposed to be morale boosters and reminiscent of great work or team achievement. Will your folks take them home?'

Different organizations have different responses to this question. Some have community walls where people assigned to that 'neighborhood' put up their pictures, although I haven't seen achievement plaques there. Others suggest having a very small number of personal items that can be put away and taken out each morning – photos, etc. Others, like Google, who are not so concerned with reduction in real estate footprint embrace many aspects of open space and collaboration and simultaneously accede to 'the engineers demand [for] stationary offices that they could nest in and decorate like digital magpies.' (See article here).

Making this mental shift from 'my space' to 'our space' is probably akin to moving from a private home to a commune. The desire for a private, single occupancy office, and the questions about how to personalize space are two factors that illustrate that it is much harder for some people than others to make this shift. So it is important that they are helped in this. Backing up this statement, a research article published in Ergonomics in 2010 titled 'Can personal control over the physical environment ease distractions in office workplaces?' concludes 'The results showed that workers' sense of control over physical aspects of their work environment mediated the relationship between perceived distractions and perceived job performance. These results suggest that increasing perceptions of personal control over features of the physical work environment may serve to link work attitudes and work outcomes.'

One organization, Radio Shack, working with this in mind had an interesting approach to moving from traditional to open, collaborative offices that is described in their case study. Basically they invested $400,000 in a model office of the future that they called the Ideas Lab.

'Ultimately, every HQ RadioShack employee spent time in the Ideas Lab, either working, touring, or visiting. Every one of the 70 departments discussed which aspects of the Lab they wanted applied in their own neighborhoods. "Each group was able to get the right things, versus the cookie cutter approach of throwing the same cubes at everyone," The company estimates the Lab facility and processes saved $1.5 million by preventing application and design mistakes.'

Other ideas on how to help employees either discard their status armor or reduce its scale or acknowledge its place with innovative way of handling it (beyond giving into single occupancy assigned space) would be welcome.