Why I gave up my private office

A few months ago, after more than 5 years, I moved out of my private office and into open space seating. It’s been the best management decision I have made in a while.

I always thought I had good reasons to occupy a private office, mostly because of my people management responsibilities.

Privacy. Managing people requires privacy for planned or ad-hoc 1-on-1 conversations. Spending enough time with team members on a 1-on-1 basis to listen to concerns, address issues and provide honest feedback is an important part of my job.

Confidentiality. I quite frequently need to discuss face-to-face or on the phone confidential issues related to HR, financials, sales, strategy, company decisions, etc. Confidential information is also shared through e-mails, so I sometimes need to keep my screen to myself.

Individual Productivity. Managing people means frequent interruptions. When critical work needs to get done, it makes a world of difference to be able to close the door and work undisturbed.

Over time, though, I realized that the above reasons were not enough to justify secluding myself in a private office. In fact it became rather clear that there was so much I was missing out on. Let me explain.

My primary responsibility as a manager is to make every single one of my people successful. There is no such thing as a good manager of a poorly performing team.

Seating in open space next to my team members allows me to have a much better understanding of how to help them be successful in all sorts of ways.

Chemistry. The right chemistry within a team and across teams is what makes teams and organizations successful. You can learn a lot about where chemistry is lacking by watching how teams interact in meetings or by consistently gathering feedback from team members, but there is nothing like witnessing first hand how people and teams interact on a daily basis under all circumstances. It is an eye-opener and something that a manager hiding in an office can never fully understand (or fix).

Foresight. A hallmark of a good manager is his/her ability to identify and resolve issues before they turn into real problems. Seating in open space next to everyone else has helped me get a much better sense about where friction may be brewing. You just feel it in the air, way before someone knocks on your door and lets you know about it.

Team productivity. I expect my team members to be super productive. Unfortunately, they don’t have the luxury of closing their door to work undisturbed when they need to. So I must make sure that they are operating within a productive working environment, with as few disturbances as possible. The only true way of ensuring that is by feeling the pain myself while trying to be productive in the same working environment as them.

But it’s not just about making my team successful. There is another very important reason.

Moving into open space next to the team sends a powerful message: we are in this together. The team realizes that you actually mean it when you say that you are in the trenches with them and that you are always there when they need you. It’s not the same if they have to knock on your door or call you. It just builds a different level of trust.

As far as dealing with issues of privacy, confidentiality and individual productivity, the answer is quite straightforward. Turn all private offices into meeting rooms. That usually provides plenty of space to cover everyone’s (not just the manager’s) needs for the above.

Of course, there are objections.

The most common one I hear is that people will feel like they are being watched over and that they will purposely alter their behavior just because their manager is sitting there. This may sound like a valid concern, but it mostly applies if you are managing by fear, rather than trust and results.

Another big one is that a manager deals with so many private and confidential issues that it is impractical to have to use a meeting room all the time. My answer to this is that unless you are the CEO or you are in finance or HR (and even then, I am still skeptical), you should not have that many secrets from your team. If you do, something is wrong.

Last but not least is that managers have just earned the right to have a private office. Corporate mythology is awash with images of powerful executives occupying plush corner offices, with large glass desks, expensive furniture and awesome views. The effect is so strong that the size, luxuriousness and location of a private office often become measures of success for managers.

The reality, though, is that a private office is nothing more than a power trip and that moving out of it is the best thing a manager can do.

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5 thoughts on “Why I gave up my private office

  1. brave decision but as i have been an “open space” employee all of my working life i have to agree with you…hope everything goes as planned…

  2. “Unfortunately, they don’t have the luxury of closing their door to work undisturbed when they need to.”

    You get a private office as a manager, and your knowledge workers don’t? Ouch.

    “So I must make sure that they are operating within a productive working environment, with as few disturbances as possible. The only true way of ensuring that is by feeling the pain myself while trying to be productive in the same working environment as them.”

    Or, you know, getting them their own private offices. As you yourself say, “When critical work needs to get done, it makes a world of difference to be able to close the door and work undisturbed.” Unless you’re not a manager, apparently. Or is only managerial work “critical”?

    Moving out of a private office is like saying “I make my programmers work on Windows 3.1, so to understand their pain, I’m going to use Windows 3.1, too.” That’s not really a solution.

    “The most common one I hear is that people will feel like they are being watched over and that they will purposely alter their behavior just because their manager is sitting there. This may sound like a valid concern, but it mostly applies if you are managing by fear, rather than trust and results.”

    Well, they *are* being watched — by everyone, not just you. I suppose your office has so much “trust” that there’s one big unisex bathroom with no walls or doors, too?

  3. “The most common one I hear is that people will feel like they are being watched over and that they will purposely alter their behavior just because their manager is sitting there.”

    Yes, this is the biggest problem with open floorplan offices. Psychologists call it “evaluation apprehension.”

    “This may sound like a valid concern, but it mostly applies if you are managing by fear, rather than trust and results.”

    Your assumption here is not borne out by longitudinal studies of office layouts. Productivity is harmed by being watched, even by people who overwhelmingly support you. It has nothing to do with “managing by fear.” Susan Cain’s book cites a dozen examples of studies that support this.

    • Thank you for your comment Susan.

      I believe that the effects of “evaluation apprehension” will wane over time, if the relationship between a manager and her team is built on trust. However, this will not be the case, if the relationship is based on fear.

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