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Neighborhoods, Homes and Office Space

Leadership

My dad used to say that littering is the first stage of crime.

What he meant was that when people don‘t keep their neighborhoods clean, they lose a sense of pride and personal responsibility. As the appearance of their environment continues to erode, a subtle but undeniable spiral occurs. People lose hope, their behavior becomes more irresponsible, the neighborhood gets worse, and eventually a town—or even a society—begins to crumble.

Beyond the social and psychological implications of my dad‘s philosophy—one that always made sense to me—it also speaks to the powerful impact that a physical environment can have on human beings. As simple as it may seem, the structure and appearance of a home or a neighborhood or a workplace has a profound influence on how the people who live or work there behave.

Imagine if your home were designed with spacious, palatial bedrooms and a miniscule family room. Would you be surprised to find that the interaction of family members decreased and ultimately impacted the unity of your family? Of course not. Yet somehow, most organizations fail to understand the impact that their physical structure has on the dynamics of employees.

The biggest problem with traditional office space is what it suggests about the importance of individual versus collective work. By placing greater emphasis on privacy than openness and collaboration, companies unconsciously encourage people to see their work as being primarily individual. Whether we‘re talking about line employees in cubicles or senior executives in walled offices, workers are almost trained to seek out greater separation and space.

On first glance, this might seem understandable, even natural. Human beings crave their own territory, or according to Maslow, shelter. But is that something we want to honor at work? In some cases, the answer is ‘yes’. A few professions certainly lend themselves to individual focus and privacy and separation. But outside of writers and inventors and monks, not many come to mind.

Most jobs, and especially those that revolve around leadership, are social by nature and should be done in groups. Which means that the higher you go up the food chain within an organization, the more true this should be. And yet, the higher a manager rises in most organizations the more likely he or she is to be allocated an office, suggesting that his or her job is primarily about doing isolated thinking or planning. Or perhaps communicating via e-mail.

So, am I suggesting a radical departure from tradition, one in which executives sit in big, open areas with their teams, going into private rooms only on occasions when it is necessary? Well, I guess I am. Frankly, I don‘t see a better option. Until leaders are forced to interact with one another as a rule rather than an exception, they will continue to under-communicate and under-collaborate, creating cascading problems throughout the rest of the organizations they manage.

What I‘m not suggesting, however, is the creation of funky offices with coffee bars or ping pong tables or spiral slides that connect one floor to another. Those are gimmicks which don‘t address the real problem created by too much privacy and separation. Neither am I suggesting that restructuring our offices become some sort of protest against hierarchy. The reason to move away from closed offices to more open designs is not about aesthetics or rebellion against authority. It is simply about creating an environment of where communication and teamwork have the best chance to thrive.

Now, if an organization is not truly committed to making teamwork a reality, then my suggestions here probably won‘t amount to much. Simply putting people in close proximity cannot substitute for a cultural shift toward trust and healthy conflict and transparency. But perhaps moving people out of their offices and into the light will be just what the organization needs to ignite their appreciation for the power of teamwork. And even if it doesn‘t, it will probably reduce real estate costs.