I have seen a huge number of workplaces in the past ten years implement some form of novel work environment in order to both attract employees and reduce costs. Those two goals are seemingly at odds, but are frequently paired through the increasing technology capabilities every firm possesses.

All of these changes were reactions to negatives in the working environment of the twentieth century: most folks commuted a large distance to work, and lacked the ability to do any sort of personal work during their work hours. Breaks were mandated at specific times, and when one traveled, one was disconnected from the main thoughts of everyone else. “Work time” was very different than “personal time” – when one clocked out for the weekend, there was no ability to bring someone back in. Teams over a certain size tended to break down based not only on office location, but even which floors employees were working from. Collaboration in the modern concept didn’t truly exist.

This model saw rapid change early in the twenty first century. Many progressive firms lured employees to work with a series of office improvements: activity spaces (e.g. foosball tables, outdoor enclaves), lots of food and drink amenities and the idea of work as “fun”. All of these were designed to get employees to work in a team environment and to build long-term relationships with their colleagues – to blur the line between “personal time” and “work time” so that folks felt empowered during both. Even collaboration tools shifted from asynchronous mechanisms such as email to always-on items like permanent chat (Teams, Slack, etc.). It became very difficult to “step away” from the office when every system was designed to bring you back in. Consequently, the hours worked by individuals began to climb, helping make each person more “productive” and useful to the company.

In parallel, with many folks now increasingly mobile, using laptops and cell-phones to communicate, firms began to start to move permanent spaces out of the office, enabling a set of employees to work remotely most of the time, and to book space inside the office on an as-needed basis. This “hoteling” concept shrunk the overall floor plan for large enterprises, which saved money, and also allowed high-performing individuals to often work from home, increasing staff satisfaction. Staff who remained, were often moved into large “open space” areas which grouped large numbers of people in a high-energy space with very little personal/private space which reinforced the blurring divide earlier. By contrast, folks who worked from home enjoyed almost complete anonymity in their actions: no one could physically look over their shoulder at what they were working on.

The big loser in this equation? The actual office itself. Both of these desires, to blur the personal/work divide, coupled with increasingly remote work, tend to leave folks less engaged. Although the technology allowed folks to work from any location, many believed they were isolated from a hub of activity, and fun times, happening at a primary office. This irony didn’t help those who worked in the office, subjected to not having a permanent office, or working side-by-side with colleagues fighting for conference room to collaborate in. When “going into the office” means having to endure a loud, chaotic space with no guarantees, it is no wonder many folks continue to prefer working from home, even if it left them feeling disconnected.

There is, of course, a solution to this problem. Surprisingly, it is not mostly technology based. In a modern office, folks are both empowered and connected. The first major change impacting many folks is the simplest: the commute. As more and more individuals begin to work from urban locations, the concept of driving an hour to get to an office starts to seem dated and a waste of time. For folks spending two hours a day (or more!) in their car, a switch to a closer location, or a walkable way to get to the office, can end up saving over 10 hours a week, or almost 500 hours a year. That’s more time than most employees get for vacation each year – so reclaiming it can make a huge difference in engagement.

Getting that time back impacts other aspects as well: employees who enjoy their colleagues, but don’t have time to get the occasional dinner, or happy-hour, tend to feel disconnected. With less commute time in the mix, those informal sessions can occur more often and feel less stilted. With so many remote working options, however, why would *anyone* come into the office? The biggest draw to come into an office is to ensure it is a inviting location. An open-office plan, despite the cost-savings, doesn’t make folks feel welcome. Instead, the question should be whether you have enough collaboration spaces to balance out private offices. Were you to ask folks whether a foosball table were more important than having enough free huddle rooms, you’d get a honest answer. In general, private offices don’t need to be large – folks feel empowered even with a small office, even cozy, in a way they do not with an open space, let alone a hotel space.

About hoteling: it doesn’t work. Most folks forced into hotel cubicles are going to naturally resist, and thus book conference rooms, to do their best work, which will reduce your number of free conference rooms to zero, which will impact the entire organization. Instead of hotel spaces, it’s often easier to classify your employees into one of three categories:

  • Remote workers
  • Full-time office workers
  • Part-time remote workers

The solution to the first two categories is simple: remote workers don’t get dedicated space, and are asked to come in only when their team is meeting, and they can work in a collaborative team room. Full time office workers should receive offices. Dividing the bulk of your staff into those two categories solves most issues – and asking folks to make that decision helps folks self-select the type of office experience they have. For folks who crave human interaction, being able to choose to be with other people who want to work in the office is a huge boon. No one wants to work next to someone who would prefer to be somewhere else!

That final category, is where things get a bit tricky, and why it is so important to ask folks to choose to be in one of the other two categories. Often, folks such as executives with frequent travel, or business development people, fall into this category. Ultimately, having a couple private rooms for these folks to take up when they appear isn’t a big negative.

This is a big change. And one that folks may take some time to embrace. I still see folks, in one breadth decrying the end of the open office but in the other saying “the concept of a personal desk is dying”. It’s important to realize that folks really do want personal space to work from. They want privacy, even while at a work location, so that every thing they do isn’t monitored and judged. And they want choices for where to work, and when. All of these can be accomplished without giving up the private office concept.

Importantly, a closed door for a private office no longer means someone isn’t collaborating. Instead, they can be communicating with a team of people spread across the world. And when they open that door, and walk into a communal team space armed with powerful collaboration tools they will feel at ease, fully immersed in their job and building esprit de corps with their colleagues.