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Offices, cubicles, open spaces...Oh my!

There are so many options when it comes to workspaces in companies today. There are offices with doors and without doors. Transparent and non-transparent walls. There are cubicles with tall walls and those with short walls. Then there are the spaces with virtually no barriers or privacy between work areas. More companies are moving towards glass offices, open spaces, and areas for group work and conversation. The question is whether these open spaces, lack of physical barriers, and encouragement of collaboration with strategic design of office space is actually better. It depends. Obviously, the type of company, type of work, company culture, regional or local culture, objectives, and strategy all influence the type of work space that is most conducive to getting the intended results. But one question is whether companies are clear on what results they want to achieve when it comes to the design of workspace? I highly encourage organizations to explore the answers to this question and ensure that the workspace design will truly achieve the desired outcomes.

When it comes to getting quality work done, one consideration that is often overlooked in the design of workspace is the individual. How does the individual work best? Is this person an introvert or extrovert? Does the person work best in a quiet environment with little distraction or interruption or does the person thrive in a busy environment with noise and constant activity? Is the individual sensory sensitive? Are there certain activities required of the person that would necessitate quiet space? A company is comprised by many types of individuals and they are different in their needs, style, personality, and preferences when it comes to work. Think about how you work best and how you may have different workspace needs depending on the activity you are doing. For example, when I write, I need silence and no interruptions. When I am creating new content, I like to sit on the floor, use markers of different colors on paper, spread papers across the floor, and I like to engage others with my ideas. There are times I like to sit and other times I like to stand. There are times I want to work looking at nature and other times I want nothing to look at. But one thing I know is that I like to be able to choose how I do the work, so that I do it the best way I can.

Most of the time the workspace of an individual is determined by rank, position, status, title, years of service, space constraints, or some type of default system. It is up to the individual to figure out how to overcome, cope, strategize, manage, and survive in the assigned workspace in the moments that it does not align with optimal working conditions for that person. As I work with employees on issues, such as minimizing multitasking, reducing the number of interruptions or distractions (which cost companies billions of dollars per year), practicing deep and sustained focus, and setting boundaries, workspace is often times brought up as a major barrier. The employees immediately jump in and share strategies with each other for how they deal with less than ideal workspaces. Let's take a look at some of these:

1. Do the work that requires silence and no interruptions at home in the evenings/weekends

2. Hide in a closet or secret area of the office where no one can find me and get work done

3. Wear noise-cancelling headphones or high-grade earplugs at all times to block out noise

4. Look annoyed or mad so that people leave me alone

Let's be clear that we do move beyond these initial suggestions to ones that are more positive, productive, and sustainable, but that is not what I want to discuss here in this post. The point of bringing up this topic is to generate discussion on workspace options that also consider individual preferences and characteristics. Are there options for an individual to do portions of their work in the environment most suitable for them? The more autonomy and control that a person has over how they do their work, the better they will do. Is there some work that can be done remotely? Is there an area of the office that is designated as quiet space where talking and cell phone use are prohibited? What are options for an individual who is noise-sensitive? There are also considerations from an organizational perspective. What is office etiquette around interruptions and disruptions? Does the culture condone or encourage multitasking? Does the organization frown upon working remotely? Is the perception of being at the office for a certain number of hours what matters in your culture? Are there unspoken rules or norms around workspace or workspace flexibility? What are the beliefs and attitudes about workspace and flexibility of the leaders and managers in the company? Do managers decide whether their department or employees have flexibility or not? Does the company or culture hold on to beliefs from the past that are no longer relevant?

Of course there are certain roles or other constraints that may not lend itself to workspace design flexibility, but the topic should remain in the forefront and needs to be discussed and considered for the sake of employee engagement and satisfaction. For those leaders or managers who believe that employees should not have workspace options because they will take advantage of them or that these options are not fair to other workers who are in positions that do not lend themselves to this flexibility need to step back and reflect. The days of authoritarian leadership in which workers need to be controlled in order to be productive are over or at least they should be. Individuals want to do good work, contribute, provide value, learn, grow, get results, solve problems, and succeed. Employees need to be trusted and supported in doing the best work they can. They need the right space and conditions to do it, and most of all, they need the ability to have some choices to make this happen.

I invite you to share your thoughts on workspace flexibility.

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