Oh, how we love our offices, those wonderful spaces we call home away from home. An office is a creative world where we think, type, talk, analyze, hang pictures of our nieces and nephews, and relish our own little beige corkboard domain. It's heaven.
Okay, so maybe not. Maybe we're squished, sitting nearly on top of one another. Perhaps we want to pound the keyboard when we're on deadline and voices travel over our dull, dingy partition walls. Some of us feel a little lonely at the top when we're cornered off into our cold, solitary offices. A few of us even take part in a modern-day ritual, rushing to find a desk every day in a 21st-century workplace experiment where there are no seat assignments.
But some employers are trying to create a good work environment by setting up workstations (note the catchy phrase for desk) that will make employees more productive and generally happy when they come to work.
In one instance, the U.S. General Services Administration moved all of its senior leaders out of their offices and into an open-office plan at the Auburn, Wash., offices. That meant even the organization's leaders sat at desks next to other employees. It rid the office of a hierarchy, according to Kevin Kampschroer, director of research for the GSA's Public Buildings Service, the landlord branch of the GSA whose aim is to provide a "superior workplace for the federal worker."
"The higher-ups spent less time in the office, while the administrative assistants were there a lot," he said. "So we made sure those in the office often had everything they needed."
Sure, higher-ups had paid their dues and earned their offices with the nice big desks and the expansive views. But so many of them traveled and spent time away at meetings and events that it just didn't make much sense to squeeze those who stayed at the office eight hours a day into cubes while the nice big offices remained empty. The theory on rezoning of that office space was that it would be more collaborative.
The job of housing the federal government (more than 1.1 million employees) is no easy task. And the way the organization has gone about it in the past has not been perfect, Kampschroer knows. Which is why he and his group began to develop a new way to make their workplaces more effective via better office space.
At GSA headquarters in Washington, the offices were transformed into a totally flexible space, where workspace modules are completely movable. The building services group figured if a company could make it inexpensive to move workspaces around, people would be more willing to experiment with work and might even increase their productivity, Kampschroer said.
But isn't there a little something else going on here? If we loved our jobs, wouldn't a dingy cubicle not really matter? That's Patrick Sauer's theory. He wrote an article on the topic for Inc. magazine's September issue. He was surprised just how much studying of office space is going on out there.
As for Sauer, he sits in an open sort of cube farm himself. "Sometimes we could use a little more privacy," he said. But really, is that such a big deal?
It is for a lot of people, including one who wrote into the Life at Work discussion earlier this month:
"Our office is set up sort of like a cube farm, but the partitions don't go all the way to the ceiling. Desks are close together. I am assigned to work next to a person who makes a lot -- A LOT -- of annoying noises. He grunts, groans, moans, burps and belches, talks to himself, laughs to himself, lets his phone roll over to voice mail instead of answering it." The writer continued with all sorts of complaints about the cube-mate, and asked how to deal, without looking petty.
Well, people deal with it every day. I have colleagues who wear earplugs (including people who sit near me, which makes me wonder just how loud I am when interviewing people like you about things like intra-cubicle slurping). Others listen to music while they type away. And, of course, there are the bolder few who actually are (refreshingly) direct and ask cube-mates to keep it down or eat their stinky fish sandwich elsewhere.
Kampschroer acknowledged that while the new office spaces appear to be working for the government employees involved in his pilot program, he learns as he goes. One thing he learned early on: "If we're moving people out of offices into open space, they need quiet rooms."
"The future is now," said Barbara Hampton, vice president of knowledge management at CoreNet Global, a corporate real estate association that recently published "Corporate Real Estate 2010: Enabling Work in a Networked World." "We're already seeing . . . a reduction in assigned offices."
Hampton said her organization has seen many changes in how we work. One example is JetBlue's virtual reservations desk. The company's call-center employees operate out of their own private call centers -- their homes.
Hampton also has seen an increase in collaborative space, where a team sits together in a generic setting to work on specific projects.
In addition, she said, because so many people can work from home now, they come into the office for more than just a place to do work. "When people come to work, they don't come to go to the office anymore. They come to work to get a cultural and social experience."
And what an experience it is.
Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday at www.washingtonpost.com to discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.