What Does Your Cube Say About Your Company?

I’ve recently been exploring the interplay of intelligent office design on employee productivity and workflow. Does your company’s physical space encourage collaboration or secrecy? And what does it say about your company’s values?

My firm is going through a growth spurt, and we’ve been looking at new offices. It’s been an eye-opening experience, seeing other corporate cultures. I’ve walked into offices of total silence (with 30 people in the room) and startups of six people with the backbeat hopping. Rooms devoid of all color and personality. Cubes with comics, calendars, and takeout menus all over the place. Executive suites tucked in a corner, isolated from their worker bees. And CEOs in the Mayor Bloomberg model, sitting in the bullpen. Seeing how other people work, how they collaborate, how they compete, is just fascinating. And I, as an entrepreneur and CEO, have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create an environment ex nihilo – from scratch.

The corner office used to be a status symbol. The location, view, and furnishings were a tangible sign to everyone that you had made it. Closed doors separated the manager from the team; secret conversations behind closed doors, political maneuvering as a means of climbing the corporate ladder.

These days, when much of our lives are visible in the virtual world, those status symbols have lost some of their luster. Workers in their 20s have grown up in a world where their life is an open book. A cube fits the open-book lifestyle. That closed door signifies a boundary that can impede collaboration. Even cubes with high walls have fallen out of favor. Higher walls can provide visual and sound privacy; fitting for a bank but deadly for creative. Those cube walls can also begin to feel tighter and tighter.

The trick is the balance of productivity and privacy. A lot of startups and media companies have relatively flat organizations, where collaboration and creativity are encouraged. A Gensler study looked at the impact of the physical workspace on personnel and bottom line; companies with strong market positions, better employee engagement, and higher profit “had significantly higher performing workspaces than average companies.” They identified three factors to intelligent office design:

  • Employees need time to focus, but they also need time to collaborate.
  • Employees need the ability to have community and socialization in the workplace to make it more meaningful.
  • Employees should be encouraged to learn.

Better workplace = satisfied employees. Jasmine Murray, a design and interiors specialist, takes it one step further. To her, intelligent office design sends a powerful message to the employees. “It shows employees that you care about them, that you have taken the time and the energy to think through their workspace, to think outside the box.” As the Gensler study put it, effective support for people’s daily work translates to organizational performance.

That means more than just cubes: conversation areas, kitchens, water coolers, elevator lobbies. In tech and creative environments, people are generally more productive in teams. Intelligent office design creates a place for informal socializing. That’s no longer seen as a time-waster; it’s now a business asset.

Finally, I know people have issues with cubes. Having your boss sit right next to you, hearing everything you say, can be too close for comfort. And one person’s background music is another person’s noise (in my office, the music can range from Phish to Foo Fighters and Flo Rida). Yes, in New York City, when every square inch is precious, space can be a precious resource. But intelligent office design, with a focus on encouraging effective workflow, says a lot about the company and its leadership.

P.S. When my firm relocates in a few weeks, I’ll be working from a temporary desk, as will the rest of my senior management team. My frontline staff, however, will be situated in brand new workstations. Ergonomic, bright, with low partitions to encourage collaboration and take advantage of the natural light and views. All the bells and whistles they can use. Just don’t ask me what my desk will look like – haven’t gotten around to that yet.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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