As one of the most visible manifestations of management behaviour, the location a leader chooses to place themselves within an office environment can have a big impact on politics and productivity.
Much has been written about whether business leaders should sit with their team or retain the sanctity of a private office. It’s hard to know what is best.
On the one hand, business owners don’t want their employees to think they are being snooped on. Conversely, they don’t want to appear aloof or that the “I’m more important than you are” card is being played.
Unfortunately, there’s simply no right or wrong answer: it’s whatever works for you – and among the multitude of factors that will play a part in the decision are the size of a team, the layout of an office, the nature of a business and individual management behaviour/style.
For James Calder, chief executive of Distinct Recruitment, the decision to sit with his team was partly influenced by the early years of his career when it was quite common for bosses to have their own office. “There was a degree of prestige that went with it,” said Calder, “but these offices also used to have quite a daunting feel about them – they were somewhere for younger workers to avoid at all costs.
“I remember, if I had to go and see one of the bosses, you were meant to leave them alone if the door was closed, and knock if it was open. It was all we knew, and when I look back I don’t really think it was a good thing.”
To say that Calder has veered off in the opposite direction with his management behaviour would be putting it mildly. He doesn’t even have his own desk.
“I’ll just have a look around at who’s not in, drop my laptop and sit there for the day,” explained Calder, who admitted this might be a slightly alarming approach to take if no warning has been given.
He remembers an earlier boss of his own who suddenly developed a liking for sitting with the team – and how it raised a few eyebrows. “Once I got my head around the fact that he wasn’t actually watching what we were doing, I could see this was a positive thing,” he added. “It gave us a softer exposure to the decision makers and also enabled them to see we were doing a good job.”
As for his own team of 26, based in Nottingham, Calder feels sure they understand he is simply interested in what they are working on. Since founding at the start of 2016, he has been determined to be right there in the middle. “It shows you’re a normal human being,” he commented. “There’s no notion of the boss being tucked away in his ‘ivory tower’ and it’s great for productivity. The speed of communication is so much quicker than when you’re in your own office – something I did once try in an earlier role – when it can take weeks or months to find out about a problem, and I think that sitting amongst everyone creates a really positive atmosphere.”
In fact, the only cautions that Calder flagged up were to remember managers need a degree of space and also that every workplace needs somewhere quiet for private meetings. “People also need a quiet space to work in if they’re in the middle of a project that requires it.”
A different approach
A quiet space is exactly what Al Keck, founder and MD of Swindon-based digital marketing agency Infinity Nation, was looking for when he made the decision to have his own office. He had tried sitting with the team, but it wasn’t quite right for him.
Driven by the need to retreat to somewhere private for confidential phone calls, and also for a little “head space”, Keck decided, when his firm moved to new premises three years ago, the office that had already been built into the open-plan room where the rest of his 15-person team were going to sit would become his own domain.
“For me,” said Keck, “the ability to go somewhere to shut the door and let the team carry on with the day-to-day running of the business – so that I can think with greater clarity on our strategy and growth – is really important.”
He, too, indicated this management behaviour has been good for productivity. The MD feels he is now less of an interruption in terms of what the team are trying to get on with and, in turn, is not distracted by them. Keck acknowledges that having your own office might be perceived as being a bit “old school”, but said the key thing to remember for any business is to find the solution that “works best for you and your team”.
Creating the right structure
Keck is hardly a stranger to the workforce: the office has been set up so that random interactions happen around the coffee/tea making area, and there is a foosball table that the founder has been known to have a game on as well. Naturally, there are regular team catch-ups as well.
James Ray, CEO of customer relationship marketing company Armadillo CRM, plans on having the best of both worlds when he moves his 30-strong team into new premises. Having learned at the building he is vacating – six large rooms on separate floors in a Georgian town house in Bath – that he rather enjoys leaving his private space from time-to-time so that he can sit with the team, his new office has been planned so that he will be even more visible. Armadillo CRM’s new work space will be open plan and on a single floor, with Ray’s glass-walled office occupying one corner.
“Having my own office gives me privacy when I need it,” he explained. “That could be having conversations with people that I don’t want to be overheard, the chance to focus on a piece of work that I’m doing or even if I just want ten minutes to look at booking some flights for a holiday.
“But, when we move, the divisions between my office as ‘that’s the CEO’s domain’ and the rest of the business will become much more blurred, I think.”
Ray is also introducing an element of hot-desking to the new workspace, and he’s keen to embrace this change himself. It’s a good way for team members and management to interact, he feels, and the CEO is confident productivity will be boosted.
Ultimately, Ray admitted, being in your own office – especially one that is tucked away – can be quite lonely. It’s easy to lose the buzz of the team. So how do larger corporations manage?
“We have clients who are much bigger than we are,” said Ray, “and some of them have more ‘traditional’ office structures where it’s broadly open plan for the masses – with those rarefied fifth or sixth floor offices for senior employees. Even so, I think that good leaders are finding ways of making sure they stay connected with their business.”
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