Over the many years I worked for a law firm, it occupied 3 different offices. The first had a main hallway that snaked through the building, creating a labyrinth that was confusing and inefficient. All employees had individual offices along the hallway with the exception of the receptionist, one secretary who had an office that was doorless, and a part-time employee who had a space in an open area that contained supplies and files. There was also a large conference room, a tiny kitchen, and an airy lobby. The snakey hallway was strange but the individual offices, though small, were sufficient and allowed privacy and granted the opportunity to work behind a closed door for concentration. Some, the introverts, closed their doors regularly while others never did.
Next the firm moved into an office that was designed to the specific instructions of the partners. The takeaway: don’t let lawyers design offices.
The new space consisted of one very long hallway with one smaller hallway that led to the bathrooms, a small kitchen, a legal library, and at the end, an open secretarial desk with a private attorney office. Because that secretary and lawyer were isolated from the rest of the employees and partners, they acted distant and separate, not part of the group as a whole.
All other offices came off the main, long hallway with the exception of one other short hall that had four cubicles and a busy copy/supply room. All staff had tiny cubicles about 1/3 the size of their private offices in the prior location. Those in the cubicles adjacent to the copier were the busiest employees, spending hours on the phone each day, printing reams of documents, and typing for hours. Their work noise added to the cacophony from the copier room, which was also a gathering /discussion spot. The busiest people worked in the loudest place and didn’t have offices with doors. Smart design.
Continuing down the long hallway, there were more staff cubicles and private offices for attorneys. The noise was less but those cubicles were still tiny noise trappers and offered no privacy.
At the end of the long hallway was the senior partner’s office with an open area for his secretary. Most employees worked there because of the senior partner. He was admired, respected, fair, and well-liked by the employees and the other attorneys. He was the heart of the firm but his location was remote, making him virtually inaccessible. The limbs were no longer attached to the heart and the law firm began to atrophy. One excellent employee after another left, some who had worked there for more than a decade. The partners disagreed and argued; several left.
With the loss of attorneys and the business in disarray, difficult decisions were made. The office was sold and the firm moved into a much smaller space that had an open, but crowded, area for three secretaries with four attorney/paralegal office off the open space. Two of those offices had no doors, essentially making them part of the open space.
Noise levels made concentration impossible. Petty arguments between employees exploded into raucous disagreements and shouting matches. Employee satisfaction plummeted. The only good factor was that the beloved senior partner was now accessible. Only, he didn’t want to be accessible because of the turmoil, resulting in him spending many hours working from home.
The story could end here with the firm closing its doors but a rescuer appeared. Another attorney in town lost his only partner to cancer and suggested merging the two firms. His stand-alone office building was spacious enough for everyone.
That office has a better, though not perfect layout, with mostly individual offices. The three open areas for secretaries are alcoves that allow for some privacy, though not enough. There is also a large kitchen so gatherings are not in hallways or outside of offices. One spacious conference room and one smaller provide quiet space for working on projects that require deep concentration. Offices for the two partner secretaries are pass-thrus to the partner offices, allowing their assistants to monitor and control those seeking access to the partners.
The current location is the best. Work is efficient; staff is cooperative and generally happy.
Amar, your piece was excellent. People underestimate the importance of office design, if they consider it at all. And the employees should have input in what they need to work efficiently. Never should the employer make all the design decisions.
It’s frustrating when a new design, like open office space, works well in one situation and then becomes a detrimental design for all offices. One design does not fit all.