Office Space

Now that we have seen a week of 80 degree temperatures in Chicago, I think it might be time to talk about the environment.  Wearing shorts and playing golf on St. Patrick’s Day is very unusual in this part of the country, and at least for me it goes beyond “isn’t this wonderful” to “this is weird.”  Anyway, the external environment is a topic for other blogs and for those with more scientific minds than mine.  I would like to talk about the work environment, an area where we can have much greater control.

It is interesting to me that over the last 25 years not a lot has changed in the offices where marketing executives work.  Business casual in most companies has replaced the strict business attire of the mid-80’s and laptops with docking stations have replaced desktop computers, but other than that not a whole lot has changed.  Marketing executives are still working in offices and cubicles.  There are still meeting rooms that need to be reserved and phones that are attached to wires.  People still seem to spend 9-10 hours a day in the office, although it seems much of their real work gets done at night.  In this type of environment, is it any wonder that creativity seems a little stifled?

In yesterday’s HBR blog in their on-line quick tips they gave some ideas on how this can be fixed.  They thought if you added a light, perhaps a small fan, pictures of your family and turned your back away from the door, life would be good in the cubicles and offices of today.  I think we can do a little better.

In the NY Times last weekend there was an interesting piece on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s office space in Seattle.  This was much more interesting than the HBR blog.  They talked about a space where there were offices that were used only when private time was needed.  Many worked in a 33 foot high glass atrium that exposed the workers to the space needle and the occasional Seattle sunshine.  Workers sat at long communal tables with laptops and regularly created buzz by interacting with each other.  In nicer weather, the workers went outside and worked around the grounds through their wireless Internet connection.  The article discusses how the environment and the culture complemented each other and, at least for them, this was the ideal way to work.

Most would agree that the difference between success and failure often depends on how well work is performed.  It would seem logical that every variable that can be controlled should be to give the worker the best chance to succeed and to be productive.  All obstacles should be removed.  If cooperation and teamwork are desired then walls should be torn down.  If private conversations are needed, such as during interviews or HR discussions, then offices are needed.  If the work involves only answering emails and doing phone calls, then that could be done at home or anywhere else and an office may be a waste of money.  If the main work desired is strategic and creative, then a work space should be designed to help that happen.  I guess function should help drive form!

Taking this to an even different level, it is interesting to me that in a world where everyone is connected and so many work virtually, why do marketing folks have to even live in the same location?  One of the rules for developing the best possible team is to put as few restrictions on them as possible.  The absolute best person for a job may not want to relocate to headquarters, especially if their spouse is tied to a different geography.  The best person may not want to sit in an office all day.  They may want to work out of their home rather than do a difficult commute five days a week.  For some jobs there is no compromise.  A surgeon needs to work in a hospital or at least a surgicenter of some type.  This may not be the case for a marketing professional.  If a marketing team was built by only hiring the best of the best regardless of where they live and then modifying the work processes and structures around the executives, I wonder if they would perform better than a team established by only hiring the best of those who are willing to fit into the existing environment and location?  Maybe the warm weather is getting to me!

From a personal standpoint I can attest that my best marketing people often spent a majority of their time out of the office either working at home or with customers.  Most entrepreneurs I know resist traditional work environments as they don’t feel the cost is worth the benefit.  Just knowing there is flexibility in this regard is a huge motivator that usually results in both more and better work output.

My final thought is that there is so much the individual can do even within the boundaries of an existing environment.  It really is the worker’s responsibility to assure they work in an environment where they can be most productive and do their best work.  The results are all that matter.  As we enter spring, the season of new growth, take some time to determine if your work environment is helping or hurting your performance or that of your team.  Even small changes can completely revitalize things!

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