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Some Status Symbols are Gone Forever...

December 5, 2009
by Tim Tolan
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We can only hope so. The days of trying to determine your value and status based on the size and location of the office you occupy is dying slowly in office buildings across the fruited plain. I was reminded of this recently as I visited an existing client of mine and a new client we signed in November. Both technology related firms – one, a pure-play start-up and the other a 10 year old company with plenty of brand equity and name recognition in the HCIT world. Both companies had a common theme relative to the office space they offered their employees. One size fits all. There are certainly challenges with a 100% cubicle office environment – but they work. It made me smile as I reflected on my days in Silicon Valley in the late 90’s where everyone had a cubicle and status was determined based on what you delivered and how great you were at foosball or ping-pong in the company rec-room. Dinner was served every night (many worked until well past midnight) and our home style (very large) kitchen was equipped with multiple cappuccino machines to keep us wired every day. Skateboards and bicycles filled the hallways and jeans and t-shirts were the unofficial dress code every day. Yes…those were the days. Today - companies across the US are finding new ways to show employees how much they care by delivering enormous value-added freebies and discounted services. It’s amazing!

My client that has been around for more than ten years has first class office space and every employee in the company (including the entire C-suite) use cubicles. Status (and walls) have been completely removed from the real estate they occupy 40-50- hours each week. Conference rooms, each named after an international city, can be reserved if you have a presentation, a vendor partner meeting or you need to interview a potential new recruit. All you have to do is log on to the company intranet and book the room. The company provides bottled water, soft drinks and snacks for all employees to enjoy and every Friday lunch is served for all. The culture and environment makes a statement and you can feel it in the air and when you do your own pass and review – I certainly did.

My new client has a similar set-up. Cubicles spread out in very large rooms with over half of them empty in anticipation of the growth they have forecasted in the HCIT market in the months and years ahead. Twenty-something’s clearly engaged and working sided by side with their peers – some with extra large screens and others with 2-3 smaller flat screens all in full swing. Most had their i-Pods on and were oblivious to the strangers walking down the corridor. You could feel the energy. I met with the CEO in their company conference room and she told me all about the company, mission statement and their plans for the next 2-3 years. You could easily surmise that this company has decided not to participate in the economic turndown and they have a very bright future ahead. I am confident they will knock the cover off the ball. No doubt.

Finally, we discussed the position profile and ideal candidates for the VP slot we would be conducting a search for and she told me exactly what kind of candidates they were NOT interested in. She told me about a candidate that had all of the requisite skills, education and industry domain knowledge. The problem: he wanted to know where his private office would be located in the building and actually asked if he could do a little measuring while he was there that day. Yes – this Sherlock brought his own measuring ruler including draftsman paper and pencil to lay things out. He went on to mention that his wife would be helping him decorate the office. Clueless? Definitely.

So the days of private offices and assigned parking spaces in the company parking lot are almost a thing of the past in some HCIT companies. I think it’s about time. The new status symbol needs to be the value each employee brings to the table every single day. To quote Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes - I like that!

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Comments

Tim, You are right and your related experiences bear that out.

There's a related issues that blurs with the status symbol of ones office or cubicle. I've had multiple administrators over the years who prized having a workspace that was within eye shot of a outside window.

Some executives are completely insensitive to this. Often, the physical plant drives the decision. When there is flexibility, and where it's a motivator, it would be important to not dismiss the whole thing to the category of narcissistic status symbology.

The tape measure and family decoration event you outlined, if it reflected the interviewees true thoughts, was very powerful information. Here's a guy who is a planner, in a very bad way!

Tim,

Fascinating topic! Personally, I've worked in cubes, I've worked in offices, and I'm pretty sure, in the early days of my career, I worked in what used to be a broom closet (though no one would own up to that fact). I remember calling home to complain to my dad about it (big mistake), and his response was, "Be damn glad you've got a job!"

Although the recession has been devastating to many and extremely stressful to most, I do think that the sense of entitlement that many were lulled into is gone, and most people are just damn glad to have a job. I guess your VP candidate with the measuring tape needs to call my dad!

G.

Tim,

Interesting post. I appreciate that blogs generally need to take a one-sided stance and be provocative (in part simply to be brief). I think you're perspective captures the minor side of cubicles, private offices, meeting rooms, and hoteling (space for visiting employees).

The major side is management of relationships. This is very different from an old-school focus on tasks. For most knowledge worker, having one-on-one meetings with ones directs is a critical best practice. So are coaching, feedback and delegation.

One of the big reasons is that conflict is a critical opportunity to enhance productivity and speed. Conflict avoidance, on the other hand leads to poor performance, slowness, poor trust, etc. Holding regular (say weekly) one-on-ones in meeting rooms when you've got a 100 or more employees in a business location and some dozen+ number of managers? You've got to be kidding. The message that an office-less CEO sends in most industries is that CEO is clueless. They have poor self-management, poor understanding of how work and leadership gets done, and no clue about the poor symbolism (not status symbol) of a CEO that doesn't respect and understand people's needs for communication and intimacy (in the professional, Druckeresque, management model.)

I did follow your links. I saw the references to the glass walled offices and transparency. I've lived that, too. I recognize that you're open to a balanced view.

Wrapping up the issue of office space management as primarily a status symbol drama is just too simplistic. Cubes can be great for computer programmers.

But even solo contributors doing content work, such as building order sets, decision rules, reports, and templates do better with doors.

The study of interruptions and task management are part of the reason. Similarly, sales execs who do a lot of work on the phone are less effective in cubes. And it has nothing to do with status.

Your ball.

Joe: Insightful comments! Thanks once again for your perspective and feedback.Unfortunately there are still those that view office space as a status symbol. It's simply amazing. Sad but (very) true.

Tim Tolan

Senior Partner, Sanford Rose Associates Healthcare IT Practice

@@TimTolan

http://sanfordrose.net/thetolangroup/

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