Is the traditional office layout fighting back?

You still see articles trumpeting the failure of Activity Based Working (ABW) but I’ve not seen a single new office layout plan for Sydney or Melbourne CBD that has completely abandoned it.

The lawyers may be dragging their heels and tenured professors may be clinging to their books and small offices, but it looked to me like game over for commercial enterprises.

The 30-40% real estate cost savings experienced with a more contemporary office layout are just too compelling.

The goals to make the organisation an attractive place to work, more collaborative, more able to innovate and be agile in response to competitive pressures and market changes are too important.

The corner offices and cluttered cubicle land had to go.

Not so in Hong Kong. Up here the traditional office layout is fighting back. Which is strange given real estate costs and supposedly hyper competition.

On a recent trip in partnership with MTM, we were privileged to look at nearly a dozen new office projects in various stages of the development process. In quite a few of them, it was clear that the corner office and permanent cubicle live on.

I was intrigued. In one case – a regional HQ for well known financial services company – I quizzed their head of property over what happened. This was a large subsidiary of a European HQ company that had embraced ABW elsewhere. But here floor plate for their new office layout looked very like the office they were in now – only with lots more very small meeting rooms.

How did it happen?

“ Well we used senor technology on everything for 3 months when we were preparing our plans for the new office”. He said. “Actually, people mainly stay at their desks all day here. They don’t meet very much and when they do meet it’s usually 2 or 3 people. They don’t use whiteboards very much. Our people mainly keep their heads down and get on with their work… there is a big rush to leave at 6pm”.

Senior Management responded to this data by fighting hard for the retention of high sided fixed cubicles for their people. The need for privacy and focus work was paramount. Chinese walls (SIC) needed between divisions. Open plan wouldn’t work.

They were happy because they could give global cost savings, because they could cut the size of their meeting rooms to better suit meetings of 2 or 3 with no wasted chairs. But the big dogs kept their corner offices. Only slightly smaller.

office layoutAhhhh. The corner office. When I see a company stumble and hold back the ABW tide, you can be sure why.

My Property Manager said it was the ‘Executive Committee’ decision.  But you can be sure it was some of those with the corner offices who fought the move.

And they would have been supported by many of those below them who were close to getting one.

That’s not the reason they’ll use. But it will be the real reason. And it’s understandable. You spend your whole career fighting for the status of the big office. The big chair. And here are some Europeans telling you to muck in with all the minions! It’s unacceptable.

My head of property was clearly frustrated, however. He looked embarrassed while presenting the plan. He was up for the change. Fought for it. But he’d lost the fight.

To me it’s incomprehensible that these executives were not terrified by what the sensor data was telling them. After attracting and retaining talent, where your new office is your chief recruitment tool and calling card, the only game in town for vulnerable organisations is to create conditions where your people give discretionary effort to their work.

You need to focus on intrinsic motivators for employees to flourish.  Flourish by Martin Seligman

office layoutA sense of purpose and meaning from the work. More Autonomy to make decisions, Engagement, Mastery of new skills, and recognition of Accomplishment. Positive relationships with their boss and peers.

To me the sensor data was telling an alarming story. Did these cubicle dwellers have a clear sense of purpose or meaning from their work? Or were they just going through the motions?

Were they squeezed to within an inch of their lives on performance targets and given little autonomy to decide priorities? Were they were drowning in emails?

If so, no wonder they were clock watching and bolting for the door at 6pm.

No engagement is what you get when you feel no great purpose in your work and you have little autonomy over how you spend your time.

Judging buy the new office plan, they didn’t appear to care too much about learning either. The new office had only a tiny allocation of space for the learning environment. Not much mastery of new thinking or sense of accomplishment for this lot.

Then there is positive relationships. These people were talking on the phone all day and typing emails. Not much face to face activity with any of their colleagues.

This tells you right there that this place was all about business as usual with very little effort going into business improvement.

This is a dead man walking I thought. They have no idea what’s coming. They will be eaten alive when they realise how fast their old business models are going to be disrupted. And here they were creating a NEW office (18 months away) maintaining all the old silos!

People throwing bricks over the wall to their upstream and downstream colleagues. No spaces for creative problem solving. No moves to equip them with tools such as Agile Method or Design Thinking. No spaces for bigger groups to get together to talk. To noodle ideas. A place you want to come to. A clubhouse where you hang out with your tribe. A place to really work together to solve the big problems that are hurting customer experience.

But my Property Manager did assure me they do have a culture goal to be more collaborative!

People who don’t talk to other people face to face are the ones most vulnerable to AI and outsourcing.

The new style office with unassigned seating, lots of social spaces and places for creative problem solving, are coming – ready or not.

And people will flourish better in them if they believe in what they are doing. Where it’s understood that employee experience is the primary driver of customer experience. Staff feeling a sense of purpose in trying to deliver better customer experience. Freedom to get involved with teams that are trying to fix the things that are broken. Developing their skills. Being recognised for their contribution and achievements on behalf of the company. Having lots of colleagues you think of as friends.

This is the company of the future. But north Asia will be the last stand of the traditional office layout.  How long will they withhold the tide?