Taking down the office walls

A long time ago I had just been promoted to “upper management” and was feeling on top of the world, but I was trying to play it very cool. During the first management meeting, one of the topics covered was our move into new offices. My new boss, the CEO, asked me how I felt about office size — whether I wanted one of the bigger offices. He said he would give it to me if it were important. Trying to play it off, I said something like, “Office size isn’t important to me; I’m just glad to be here.”

So, he took me at my word and I ended up with the smallest office on the new executive floor. I resented it for two years until I got out. I could never say anything because I had kept my cool in the beginning.

It was a lesson I have never forgotten. I wrote about this experience nearly 20 years ago and am sharing this column here and now because the topic remains just as important today. Office walls are important to people. They define political boundaries, status, power and pecking order. They can be used to separate the elite from the not-so-important, or gather people as a team. Offices can provide environments for everyone to think together, work together and help one another be successful. It depends to some extent on how the walls are constructed and a lot on how managers define the walls that separate or unite their people.

There was a point in my career when I spent a lot of time calling on Hewlett Packard. In those days, at least, HP had no private offices for anyone. It had offices for people to use when meetings were private, but otherwise, everyone sat out in the open. It was clear that the “office” problem had been carefully thought out and decisions were made to take the physical space out of the pecking-order equation. I have always felt that this was one of the reasons for the long-time success of the company and the great performance that HP got from its people.

Some companies make the decision to have private offices for just about everyone and every activity because of the creative nature of their work (engineering, writing, etc.). We have found, for example, that salespeople do a better job if they can just work by themselves, without perhaps posturing for colleagues within earshot.

However the walls are constructed, they must not be obstacles. A sense of team is critical, from the board room to the cubicle and every nook and cranny in between. From the top down there should be a feeling of accessibility.

I worked for a while for a man who was a good example of a manager who didn’t have the foggiest idea of how to get good work from his employees. His office was, first of all, about three times larger than any other, signaling his importance to anyone who had any doubt. It was further decorated with gaudy testimonials to his accomplishments. To top it all, his desk was on a platform. He talked down to anyone seated in his office. He might just as well have put up a chain link fence!

So how could he have made his people feel less intimidated and more a part of a collective organizational force within the confines of the “office?”

Have discussions on inclusive operational
procedures.

Not only does everyone know the objectives; all are involved in some way in the methods of attack to achieve them.

If you have doors, try to keep them open.

Encourage managers to “zone” – walk around and see what is going on rather than “summoning” people to the corner office.

Make everyone on the team feel significant to reaching objectives. If I feel insignificant, my mind will not be on the company’s problems but on my own.

A thoughtful, encouraging and fair manager is a pleasure to work for and makes whatever walls there are seem transparent.

Categories: Management & Leadership