Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Corporate Logic

The Globe and Mail had an article yesterday that appalled me to no end.  Titled "In The Search For Savings, The Workplace Gets An Overhaul", it describes Manulife's move into so-called "open concept" workspaces.

Lurking in the midst of a bunch of vacuous platitudes about "collaboration" and "mobile workforces" is a line that underscores the real thinking behind these workspaces:
The objectives are to improve collaboration and cut costs. 
“Real estate is an expense and it needs to be managed,” says Brad Searchfield, global head of corporate real estate at Manulife. “All things being equal, we will use less real estate. Then as we grow, it creates opportunities for us to manage that growth very cost effectively.”
That's right - it's all about cost.  Or, perhaps I should say that it's about costs that some accountant somewhere can measure.  This mentality has other, less tangible costs that are being ignored.  

'Improving Collaboration' is a load of nonsense.  It increases noise in the workplace, it increases "drive-by interruptions".  If your job doesn't require actual concentration to get anything done, then you're probably okay.  If, however, you are one of those unfortunates that has to concentrate to solve problems, you're in trouble.  Are you a manager?  Have to deal with a lot of people all the time?  Congratulations, you just became a major source of noise that everybody else has to cope with because chances are you can't get a private room to have those constant meetings in.

I don't object to highly collaborative workspaces for groups that actually need it.  Imposing it across the board is a guaranteed problem.  I'm a software developer by profession - I do my best thinking when I can get a bit a of quiet time; there are other circumstances where people need both quiet space and collaborative spaces.  

While the idea of "working from home" is an appealing notion, it has its own problems.  Not everybody has the kind of role where working remotely is effective.  Home has its own distractions, and in some cases, there are people whose interpersonal relations in the workplace will suffer quite badly when they are working remotely - they will simply lose the day to day contact with their peers that happens naturally in a workplace.

“Calgary’s just a lot more generous with space,” says Mr. McNair. “In downtown Calgary, the norm for energy firms would be close to 300 square feet per person. Some of the firms are at 400.”But the trend is spreading. 
“Most organizations can reduce their real estate by 30 per cent if they go to a [desk] reservation system or a slightly different workplace model, with very little change, because 30 per cent of those people are either on holiday, travelling on business, ill or out visiting clients,” says Lisa Fulford-Roy, a senior vice-president at design firm HOK, which is working with Manulife.
300 sq. ft. per person?  This is exactly the kind of statistical nonsense that makes organizations start thinking of their people as wooden pegs to be stored as compactly as possible.  I don't know about you, but I've never had a 300 sq. ft. office.  These statistics include meeting rooms, hallways, washrooms and reception areas.  The individual worker in the space every day is crammed into a lot less than 300 square feet.  

Individual offices in the 1990s tended to be about 100 sq. ft., cubicles about 48 sq. ft., and "open concept" desks are smaller still.  These are the real areas that people experience as their workplace.  The common areas such as hallways, meeting rooms and washrooms don't count.  The smaller you make the workspace, the greater the levels of individual stress on the individual workers.  I guarantee that companies will start experiencing greater levels of staff turnover, absenteeism, stress related illness and so on.  

The "work from home" model has other consequences - it effectively downloads the cost of office space and facilities from the employer to the employee.  Even if you have the space available to set up an office in your home, that space costs you money.  It is the employee that foots the costs of the space, heating and lighting and furniture in these contexts.  The company might provide the computer and internet connectivity, but even that is not guaranteed.

Lastly, the geniuses who are promoting these workspaces have forgotten one fundamental rule about people:  we're all different, and workspaces need to accommodate a wide range of working styles.  Try to force a style on people that is contrary to their basic natures, and there will be a price.

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