Weekly Wrap: Collaborative Space – Good Idea, Until You Need a Little Privacy

© endostock - Fotolia.com
© endostock - Fotolia.com

Here’s an office trend I’m not completely buying into: shared, collaborative workspaces.

I get the upside to it, and I agree with the general thinking behind it — mostly — as articulated in this Wall Street Journal story titled “Can’t Afford an Office? Rent a Desk for $275.”  As a longtime manager and executive who frequently had a closed door office, I regularly came out and sat at an open spot in the middle of the staff because it plugged me into what they were doing and thinking, and, it looped me into their conversations.

This was a good thing for both me and them. I got closer to the issues and concerns they were dealing with, and sometimes, I could head issues off before they ballooned out of proportion. They, in turn, could engage me in a more causal conversation that might have been more difficult to have in the more formal confines of my closed door office.

But sometimes, you need a little privacy

Yes, it’s generally all good working in an open and collaborative space — until you need to make (or take) that private phone call or have that personal chat. This is an issue that the Journal story completely ignores as they sing the praises of collaborative space, but it was always an issue for me that was hard to get around.

When I had a closed-door office, I could always run in there to take or make the phone call, so that wasn’t a big deal. But at the times I had no closed door office to retreat to (like at that famous Internet era dotcom in San Francisco, or that workplace magazine that was run by a company that didn’t understand some basic principles about building a good workplace), I was stuck.

I know, I know; that’s what shared conference rooms are for. Well, that only works at times, because you’re out of luck if the conference rooms are full or have been previously scheduled.

And what if you get a call at your desk in the collaborative workspace that doesn’t start out to be private but turns to matters best discussed in private somewhere in the middle of he conversation? Do you say, “hold that thought” as you scramble to find an open conference room you can transfer the call to? What if you can’t?

Shared conference rooms aren’t the answer

Or, what if you just inadvertently chatter away, wrapped up in the conversation and oblivious to the open workspace? What if you do that and end up giving your collaborative co-workers an earful of something they shouldn’t be hearing about or listening to?

Take it from me, these are some of the very real problems you have with collaborative space work, and I have experienced all of them, and more.

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I used to complain about the lack of a private office to my boss when I was editing that workplace magazine, and he always pooh-poohed or outright dismissed my concerns. Of course, HE never had to work in a collaborative space because HE had a private office to use when he need to make a private phone call or have a sensitive conversation. Because it wasn’t a problem for him, he was completely unable (or more likely, unwilling) to recognize it could ever be a problem for somebody else.

Collaborative workspaces are generally good for building camaraderie, teamwork, and shared sacrifice. But, they have some big downsides as well — something that gushing story in The Wall Street Journal fails to point out.

A workplace contest you don’t want to be part of

They are a workplace tool, and like all tools, are only useful if you apply them to the right job and situation. Yes, hammers are great, but they aren’t all that helpful if you need to tighten screws. So it is, too, with collaborative workspaces. They are a limited tool for some workplaces, but they may not be something that works for you.

Of course, there’s more than the debate over collaborative offices in the news this week. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • A workplace contest to see who would be fired next. Some stories you just can’t make up, like this one from the website of radio station WLS 890 in Chicago: “The owner of an Iowa convenience store chain has been called “the boss from hell” by a former worker who claims he offered prize money to employees who predicted which of their colleagues would be fired next. A judge deciding an unemployment benefits case involving William Ernst, the owner of a Bettandorf, Iowa-based chain of QC Marts, found his “contest” to be “egregious and deplorable.”
  • Big executives get big pay when they fail big. If you think CEO pay is out of control, then take a look at what CEO severance payouts, because they are stunning, according to The New York Times. “A hallmark of the gilded era of just a few short years ago, the eye-popping severance package continues to thrive in spite of the measures put in place in the wake of the financial crisis to crack down on excessive pay,” the newspaper writes. “Perhaps the biggest reason that golden parachutes persist is that corporate boards hire superstar chief executives, rather than groom strong managers inside the company for the top job. That gives outsiders a stronger hand to demand all kinds of upfront stock awards and lucrative severance deals when they are hired. So when things do not work out, that “golden hello” turns into a “golden goodbye.”
  • Want a job? Maybe you should become a social media worker. Call it a sign of the times, but the Los Angeles Times reports that social media marketers are in high demand right now as more companies turn to Facebook and Twitter as modern-day marketing tools. “No matter what they’re called, experts in marketing a company’s name and wares on social network sites — such as Facebook, Twitter and special interest forums — are in demand,” the newspaper says. “No one knows exactly how many social media jobs exist, but a quick scan of online recruitment sites shows a bounty of businesses looking to hire … (but) the number of social media-related jobs on Monster has surged 75% over the last year … About 155 positions are available a month, up from an average of 88 a month a year ago.”
  • The most interesting man in … HR technology? Yes, HR Tech 2011 in Las Vegas is over, but I bumped into a Knowledge Infusion video for the Bill Kutik Radio Show that’s a takeoff on those Dos Equis “The Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials. I think that Bill has another career ahead of him when he gets done putting on technology conferences. See if you agree.


John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


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