Where Do You Sit ?
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Where Do You Sit? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine February 2002

One of the unexpected benefits of my new role as Plant Manager involved the location of my desk. In the past, I had always been located in some sort of office environment away from the Production floor, even when I was filling the role of Production Manager in another company. I had heard about the benefits of being located where the ‘real' action is, but I had never experienced that perspective until now. When I started this new position, I gave up my personal office in an air conditioned, quiet environment for a desk out on the floor. I now have no door to close when things get loud and people can see me at all times. While such a setting might distress some people, I could not be happier.

Many people consider their personal office environment to be a status symbol. A career goal for these people is to end up with a corner office of their own, and hopefully a big picture window to allow them to look out over those below them. There were times when I too aspired to such luxuries, but over time, I began to realize the shortcomings of being rewarded with such a setup. Now that I have been able to spend several months sitting within earshot of the front lines, I do not treasure a return to what I once had.

Because I do not have an office, I am much more accessible to others. Over the past few months, I have seen this accessibility be translated into a higher level of teamwork between those of us out here who have similar office designs. We stay well connected because we do not have physical barriers between us, and this continual opportunity for connection leads to more conversation, sharing, and learning about each other. Who are you connected with the most at work? To what degree does your office location and design either encourage or discourage a sound, personal connection with the co-workers you depend on to get the job done each day?

There is a lot to be said for having an open door policy. People will not be as apt to drop by to ask a question if your door is closed. If they repeatedly drop by only to find the door shut, they will eventually stop coming by. Once they stop coming by, you begin losing a valuable connection with your people. There is much more behind the symbol of a closed door than the simple message that you do not want to be disturbed.

In addition to the design of the office itself, the physical location of one's desk greatly affects what they know about the inner workings of the company. In the past, I have been located next to a Collections department, a Customer Service department, and an Inside Sales team. Being in close proximity to these groups allowed me to hear their parts of their phone conversations and other discussions between people in the department about challenges they were having, even though I was not intentionally trying to eavesdrop. Additionally, I had to pass by these people as I moved around the office. You can only walk by someone so many times before you begin to strike up conversations and learn more about people.

Unfortunately, the location of my desk has also heightened my awareness of the division between the office and the operations people that can build up in a company. Being a food plant, we have a well-defined barrier between the production area and the office. At this time, we rarely see many office people during the course of a day. In turn, we find ourselves asking “What do they do all day?” and otherwise questioning the true value that they provide to the company. Because our paths rarely cross, I suspect that they have similar misconceptions about us. When I worked in the office, I was much less aware of these types of thoughts and feelings.

If you have the responsibility for leading others, this physical location / job design issue is only that much more important. I have experienced work settings where I was either located right by my leader or where I was positioned next to my people. I have also worked in places where I was not located that close to either party. The difference in positive relationship quality was striking. The setting, in addition to the physical design of the office itself, really makes a difference.

Status and ego do not have a place within the context of high performance teams and companies. Using physical office designs and locations to reward people for reaching a certain ‘perch' in life only discourages the types of behaviors that are needed to drive high performance (cooperation, understanding, and supportiveness). I would suggest that rotating the location of one's desk might be the best way to really build effective teams and sound relationships. At a minimum, one's job should be designed to encourage spending time with others in their environment, as opposed to always inviting them to come see you. How do you spend your time away from your desk?

Solid relationships are at the heart of any effective team, and in turn, any organization. We often try to use formal teambuilding exercises to help build relationships, instead merely of looking at what is really needed to facilitate consistent conversation between people. Our job designs and locations are what really drive relationship building in a company, not the exercises we participate in at some meeting or training session. If you want to improve relationships between people, make them share a cubicle, or better yet, force them to work together on a regular basis.

We are currently considering an office redesign that would relocate those of us who have management roles within the Operations group into a common area. Unfortunately, this common area would be further away from the production area and would have as a part of is design both individual offices and doors that can be closed. There was a time when I thought such a layout would be great. Now, I am really having second thoughts about making the move at all.

Articles have been published about the impact that office design and location has on high performance, and many companies have experienced the benefits of an ‘open space' design (where only partitions separate groups, if they are even used). It is my suspicion however that there are many more traditional layouts in place then there are those of the new design. If we really want to foster the strong relationships that are needed to support high performance, we should really begin by looking at where we place people to do their physical work and how we design their jobs to get them out from behind their desks and out onto the front lines. Where do you sit?

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