Throughout most of my working life, I’ve had my own office. It wasn't this way in the beginning. When I was in second grade, my dad would "hire" me to file papers at his office. My workplace was a small office shared with two secretaries. I sat on the floor. When I was 11, I worked outdoors delivering newspapers. On Sundays, the papers were too heavy to carry and my mom would get up in the dark and drive me. Once she drove over my foot-fortunately, it didn't break. To me, a workplace was simply wherever I needed to be to get work done.
As a professional, all this hippy-chick, freewheeling thinking changed! My first real job was on the 17th floor of a glorious high-rise in downtown Houston. I was in my early 20s and I was placed in a simple but nice office with a big heavy door, a large wooden desk, and even a computer. It was here that I discovered that offices had meaning. I saw that the corner office was big and the most senior people sat there. If they were really senior, a secretary sat in her own office outside of their office. The biggest boss got wood paneling, a team of secretaries, and extra rooms to meet-even through his own office also had a couch and table.
I didn't really get caught up in the whole "the size of my office defines my status" mind-set. In fact, when I joined another company later in my career, there wasn't an office ready for me, so I literally worked in a closet with two computers. I was incredibly productive. But this didn't last long. I think my joy in working in a closet with two computers embarrassed others and soon I was moved into an office. It was much bigger than my first office and clearly nicer than my university offices had been. It was a sign I was progressing. To what, I wasn't sure. But it was surely a sign.
As I moved into more senior roles, I moved into larger offices with nicer furnishings. People would come to me and most would knock or peek inside and ask to enter. They'd sit on the other side of the desk. Sometimes I had art, though it wasn't anything special. If I was busy or needed privacy, I could close the door. That was normal for me. I have to confess that it was around this stage when I started to want a nicer office. I started to think this was sign that I was valued by the company, that I was important.
Things changed a bit when I left the corporate world and started my own business in my living room. But, just nine months after starting Organisation Solutions, we moved into our first office, and I assumed my rightful place in the one private office. Sometimes I'd work in the common area-especially when we needed the private space to feed or play with babies-a delightfully common sight in those days. But, as the head of the organisation, I definitely got the best working space. I didn't feel entitled to this and I didn't feel guilty about it either. It just was.
Eight years ago we moved into our current offices in the Central Business District of Singapore. In the design, I made sure we had enough, but not too many, offices. I chose what I thought was the appropriate one for me. I got the blue wall whereas all the other offices were solid white. And I kept the innovation lamp near me. My mom had bought this when she helped redecorate our first office and it was my right to have it near me. As I worked in my office-all was normal. Everyone behaved appropriately-politely knocking or asking to enter the office, respecting my privacy when the door was closed, and going about their work without me hearing much.
It all changed a few years ago when a team of my consultants helped one of our clients design and use of their workplace to increase collaborative space for employees, and get rid of private offices and assigned seating. We helped with the mind-set, behavioural, and cultural changes needed to get the desired results.
I became curious when one of our consultants described the angst associated with the workplace transformation. Tears. Anger. The feelings were not nice. I wondered how I would feel and whether I might behave differently if I were to not have an office. So, I did it. I walked out of my office and sat on the dog bone. One of my staff, who had the misfortune of sitting directly across from me, literally stood up and asked me why I was sitting there. She wasn't thrilled. Of course I'm different from the managers who lost their office involuntarily because I chose to do it. Still, it had an impact on me and those around me.
Sitting in the open space office made me change my own behaviour. I started thinking more about how others might hear me because suddenly I could hear them. It made me want to use a kind voice. I found myself getting up and walking around more because it felt a bit odd sending emails in the open space. Ok, I know that sounds silly, as if the walls in my office had been a force field requiring emails to be sent. Gone were the polite knocks though, and I felt annoyed once or twice when the team started coming over or speaking to me over the low desk partition. The open space was teaching me to define my own boundaries and not let walls do it for me.
Then the big change happened when I met my great teacher-the triangle desk. Because we now had more people in the office, one of our staff, who works mostly at her desk, was relocated to the dreaded triangle. This is a quasi-desk we never thought would really be used for work. The "desk" is literally a triangle at the end of the dog bone and it's a third of the size of a normal desk. It seemed absurd for her to sit at the triangle while I sat at a much larger desk-I travel and often meet with clients offsite or use our meeting rooms for calls or meetings. So, I walked in one morning and announced that we were trading places. She was a bit embarrassed at first-but she knew it made sense and quickly stopped protesting.
Wow. What a difference the triangle made! Suddenly, I had to clean up piles of paper everywhere. I organised them into stacks and met with the person to whom I delegated responsibility for the work those papers had represented. After managing people for over two decades one would think I'd be better at delegation, but I really have to work at it. The triangle was forcing me to delegate. Next, it taught me that I'd need to chunk and block my time to be productive in that space. I couldn't just show up, spread out my things, and just sit there expecting to be productive. I had to think about what I needed to accomplish, with whom, and where. Ironically, it took that little triangle desk to drive home the value of a leadership rhythm-and to force a behavioural change in me.
You may have guessed that I even lost that little triangle and recently have become homeless. The term we use is “hotdesking”. I don’t love it yet. But I’ll never go back into the blue walled office with the closed door. And that innovation lamp? It’s found another place in the office as have better ideas and more energy.
My workplace taught me to not allow the trappings and symbols of my office, cube, or desk tell me how important nor how much I’m worth. What can your workspace teach you about who you are?