Believe it or not walls can be an interesting topic. I think I have probably written about them before. They are often taken for granted, but where would your roof be without them? On the floor, that’s where. Walls are always being metaphorically built up or broken down. Sometimes it’s not even metaphorical. Mr. Reagan told Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down” his wall. One of our current presidential candidates promises to build a new wall as his solution to illegal immigration. Pink Floyd told us that “all in all you’re just another brick in the wall.” Even this country’s national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner mentions walls.
In case you are wondering, “ramparts” is a fancy word for the walls of a fortress, which in this case was Fort McHenry, the bombardment of which by the British was Francis Scott Key’s inspiration for his poem which eventually became the lyrics for the national anthem.
Needless to say walls are an important aspect of our everyday lives. It is possible that nowhere else are they more important than in the office environment. Many of us have become dependent on the walls in the business world for any number of multiple reasons, some of which many of us are not even consciously aware of. With all of this focus and dependency on walls for the maintenance of the very fabric of the business world, I for one would like to know why it is now all the vogue for businesses to try and do away with them in our office environments.
In the past you could walk into almost any office environment and get an idea of the relative rank and importance of just about anyone in it. You would just look at the height of the walls surrounding each individual’s work area. Low walls meant low status, higher walls meant higher status and walls all the way to the ceiling meant an office instead of a cube. Everybody wanted an office. With a real door.
But not anymore.
In these days of cost cutting and the desire for hyper efficient utilization of every precious corporate resource, some smart guy (or girl) must have stood at the edge of one of the corporate cube farms and had an epiphany:
What do we need all these walls for? They really don’t serve any purpose other than to delineate the supposed working areas for the cube farm denizens. Since they only provide the illusion of privacy due to the fact that they don’t reach all the way to the ceiling and everyone can hear everything each other is saying anyway, why don’t we just remove the illusion of privacy all together and get rid of the walls.
Think about how much additional space will be freed up that was just being taken up by these essentially non-functional walls. Where there were once walls, there will now be more people. And since there will no longer be any walls to delineate a work area, we can give everyone even less space to work in and they probably won’t even notice. Our efficiency and space utilization numbers will go through the roof. We can call it the “open office” concept, and claim that it is the latest and best thing. We will save money by cramming more people into the same space.
Senior management will be pleased.
Gone will be the days of speakerphone utilization as no one will want everyone within a twenty foot radius to be included in on their call.
Gone will be the ability to utilize the computer or surf the web for any purpose other than company business as everyone will be able to see what is on the screen.
Gone will be the messy and expensive to maintain desk phones since no one will be able to guarantee that they will be sitting in the same spot each day that they are in the office so each phone can no longer have a consistent phone number. People will need to become versed in the usage of soft-phones and especially headsets if they want at least half of their phone conversations to remain relatively private.
The incremental indirect benefits just go on and on. The brave new world is here, and it is even more efficient in the utilization of office space.
Wow. Well, maybe not.
While the open office concept will allow companies to pack their employees ever more tightly into a given space (think traveling in economy coach instead of regular coach or coach plus on your favorite airline – except without the complimentary peanuts or soft drinks) at least some of your business communications (especially with customers) will require some privacy. Hence there will be an increased demand and a respondent increased supply of conference rooms.
These new open office conference rooms will now also be new and improved as well as designed for people to take and make private calls in. They will not be designed to meet in for any length of time as they too will be smaller. They will no longer be designated as conference rooms but will now become “huddle rooms” or “call rooms”. They will be great. Just don’t try to have a meeting of more than two people in them as it might be a little close.
Also don’t mind the queue outside of them as people wait for their turn to make a call.
There have been rumors that companies may in fact try to double the number of conference rooms associated with the open environment concept. This means that instead of the obligatory two standard sized conference rooms per floor, capable of allowing as many as ten or twelve people to hold a meeting, there could now be as many as four huddle rooms possibly capable of allowing as many as two people to meet.
This will now create a competition to see who can get into the office the earliest. Those that get there first will obviously claim ownership of a huddle room for that day. It will become their de-facto office for the day. However, those that pursue this course of action would be advised to bring their lunches and not make any trips to the bathroom as any perceived vacancy would probably result in the removal of their belongings from the room and someone else staking a claim to it.
Ownership of a huddle room will be viewed as the proverbial nine tenths of the law, especially when it comes to any amount of privacy in an open office environment.
I’m not really sure what the question is that the open office environment is the answer to. I suspect that it is what I have already postulated, namely if a company can remove all of the office and cube walls that are just taking up space in their expensive office environments, they can get more people in the same space and achieve a higher efficiency, at least on paper. I have not had the opportunity to work in one yet so I couldn’t truly say that it will be better or worse.
I have however had the opportunity to visit other offices and customer environments where it has been implemented. It is definitely different. I can see its allure for business. To be honest I can also see that by putting people in such close proximity to each other that it could almost force people to work together and collaborate.
I have long been a proponent of having people work together in the workplace as opposed to the virtual office idea. I don’t know what the reaction will be when people are pushed so closely together in the coming open office concept environments. I guess that as this change proliferates in business we will probably all eventually get the opportunity to see.