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Corporate space is about more than just economics

Jan 04, 2008 Business Daily, Management

“Each and every day, we unwittingly cage (and enrage) ourselves with old-fashioned thinking rooted in a bygone Industrial Era. Behind the modern corporate veil lurks old fashioned “hierarchical planning”: those Dilbertian cubicles where we partition ourselves from one another and where space is reduced to its leanest and meanest economic essentials. With time, any sentient human being can be transformed into a docile Stepford drone disciplined to serve. It sounds Orwellian because it is. Corporate space planning, when it isn’t done correctly, is a killing field.”

Karen Stephenson, European Business Forum Newsletter, Winter 2007

Professor Stephenson, a Harvard-trained anthropologist, has some advice for us. As property prices and space rentals go through the roof in Kenya, businesses are under great pressure to economise and make the most of available space.

When accountants get to work calculating the space cost per employee, and how to minimise it, they usually come up with some predictable answers on how to pack as many people as possible in the smallest possible space. This usually involves setting up vast jungles of cubicles and enforcing ‘hot desking’ for staff who are often out of the office.

Prof. Stephenson urges caution. Keeping costs down is not the only imperative when it comes to corporate space planning. “Is it any wonder”, she speculates, “why so many employees run to the vast savannahs of the internet to drink in a newfound sense of freedom? Instead of succumbing to becoming nothing more than a vanishing point in a warehouse of cubicles, MySpace, LinkedIn and YouTube promise us that we can be creators and actors in a thriving knowledge and social economy!”

Yet these virtual domains are no permanent answer. The need for physical proximity to other human beings in a conducive environment is primordial. It is something we share with the animals. Packing animals into battery farms and unnatural enclosures is something we have perfected, to our shame. Now we are busy inflicting the same misery on ourselves.

Space arrangements have a big impact on culture. The way your office is laid out affects how people behave. I have seen this repeatedly in my career as a business advisor. Often, the best advice I can give to a CEO contemplating transformative cultural change can be summarised in just one word: “Move!” The most meaningful change programmes often happen where the organisation’s physical environment is changed first.

So, when planning work environments, we must pay due regard to many factors. If you want your people to work and interact productively, some features are essential: natural light; greenery and foliage; a quiet ambience; social space; some personal territory. That may cost more, but it will be worth it when you measure the impact on behaviour. This is a challenge for architects, accountants, and people managers to meet in collaboration: how to design cost-effective spaces that don’t cut out what it means to be part of a human collective.

Of course, you could always pack ’em in like chickens in a pen, put them under fluorescent lighting with no windows, and allow them no personal means of expression or social interaction. And watch the misery index climb higher than the property prices index…

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