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June 25, 2012 / mike54martin

First They Took the Walls and Now They Want My Desk

I remember when I was first exposed to an open concept office environment. The reaction of me and my co-workers was one of shock and dismay. How could they take away the privacy of my walls and replace them with what looked like styrofoam dividers, a fake plastic window and no ceiling above me to drown out the noise of my busy workmates? Productivity and performance will fall we warned and we were sure that if there was a sky above us it would fall as well.

Flash forward to today and no one blinks at an open office and many workers wonder exactly what they would do in their private lair. Today’s workplace is about circulating air, ideas and people and the fewer barriers between any of them the better. It has also been a heck of a lot cheaper to fit-up office space without individual offices and the heating and air conditioning costs have tumbled as well. It appears that the open office may just have had some advantages after all.

But I am not so sure about the next bright idea in workplace accommodation, unassigned workspaces. The way it works is that those trusty little grey cubicles that we reluctantly learned to love are now gone. According to the Wall Street Journal many companies are moving to replace them with “non-territorial” offices that might be communal tables or floating desks that have nobody’s nameplate and nobody’s kid pictures on them.

You don’t get a desk, with or without your name on it. In companies like American Express or drug giant GlaxoSmithKline you get a storage locker and when you want a desk to work on or off of you call to reserve one in advance. They call this process “hotelling” and you can see why. Desks are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis and if you need a working space at the last minute you may be out of luck.

I guess when they said “virtual office” they weren’t kidding and along with any new idea these floating workplaces have their supporters and detractors. Many people are now working almost full time on their laptop, BlackBerry or I-Pad anyway so it may not make too much difference where they hang their work hat. The costs of not having to rent office space on a permanent basis is another key employer benefit and some proponents of the plan say that it fosters more cooperation and communication when people have to share space.

Opponents of the idea talk about the loss of personal workplace identity that comes with having your kids’ smiling faces look back up at you everyday from the same spot on your desk. Others who were not that organized to begin with find that they are spending even more time just getting set up on the days when they do come into the office. Introverts in particular may find that the group setup is particularly stressful and many long for the days of private space at work.

Those longings may not amount to much more than that as office space costs increase, especially in major metropolitan markets. That above all else may drive this latest trend in workplace accommodations. So don’t grow too attached to your desk. You may come in one day and find it gone.

This post first appeared on my blog at www.jobs.ca

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