Attaining the corner office has long been thought of as the stereotypical representation of career success. Add windows with a view, and you are ready to retire, riding off into the sunset in a state of bliss.
In the 1950s – 1960s, middle & upper management worked in a closed office environment where doors shut out the world. In the 1970s, the office design theory changed to the notion of increasing productivity through the collaboration that was forecasted to occur through a “bullpen” configuration (multiple individuals working in the close proximity with no privacy). While originally crafted for technical teams, the office design gods extended this concept to office workers and management as well.
In the 1980s-2000’s, the open office culture arose, transforming bullpens into private cubicles, with some companies going as far as placing upper management in cubicles as well. Then, later in the 2000s, there began a shift once again in to the use of bull-pins for office workers of all levels, all in the name of collaboration.
However, as is being borne out in one Fortune 500 company, this latest trend of using bullpens has been a disaster. With the exception of closely aligned design and project teams, in which team-member interaction far outweighs personal communication, both office workers and management personnel in bullpens struggle to concentrate & complete their individual tasks due to the proximity of unfettered noise from adjacent bullpen workers. It is not uncommon for these company personnel to migrate to a building lobby, a conference room, or onsite cafeterias as a means of finding a quieter workplace, essentially rendering the bullpens empty. Productivity has generally gone down as has the ability of finding a co-worker who no longer resides at their desk since they have secreted themselves to a quieter work space.
I am continually amazed to observe corporate decision makers enacting policies that are contrary to the very efficiencies they espouse. Just because bullpens are the current “rage” in progressive office design doesn’t make them right for all companies or departments. Rather, a more cognitive approach would be to engage workers as to the type of environment that would maximize their productivity and then use available budgets to provide such an environment. This could be easily accomplished while retaining the overall visual design theme and traffic flow of the corporate office environment.
We have heard much talk regarding Six Sigma, lean processing, and other productivity initiatives. I would propose that a more time efficient and direct approach to achieving a measurable improvement to office / business process efficiency, would be to engage workers in ascertaining the work (design) environment that not only provides them a safe and welcoming workspace, but enhances their productivity while occupying said space. This represents an easy and inexpensive enhancement to the bottom-line.