1. Business

Workers' cry: Give us our space!

Published Dec. 15, 2016

How important is personal — or personalized — space to you at work?

I keep hearing from workers whose offices have eliminated individual desks, created rotating work spaces or strictly depersonalized desk areas.

It turns out that workers of all ages want to be able to say, "This is my spot." Who would have thought that people would long for the once-maligned cubicle? But research and anecdotes show that people crave comfort zones or personal-space boundaries.

But employers have moved over the past decade to save money by cutting floor and cubicle space allotted per worker. Personal office walls went first, followed in many cases by cubicle partitions.

Early adopters were places like public accounting firms, which routinely have high percentages of employees off-premises with clients. They didn't need to pay for floors full of expensive, empty desks.

These pioneers in downsizing work spaces — using concepts known as "hoteling," "hot desking," "free addressing," and "beach toweling" — soon were followed by more companies that settled on open-floor layouts with movable furniture and dividers.

In many such offices, workers must reserve particular work spots for weeks or for simply a day at a time. They get private lockers to keep their personal stuff. It's cost-efficient design, but for many workers it's discombobulating. They want a spot to call their own every day.

A friend recently shared photos of what a credit union is asking its employees to do with their desktops, assuming they still have individually dedicated spaces. The instructions are detailed — no personal knickknacks, nothing bright or bejeweled that's out of character with the office color palette, office-branded pens only, no mouse pads, a single notepad visible, and only one coffee or cola cup visible.

The memo had more rules than that, plus a directive to managers to take pictures of workers' desktops to confirm compliance with the decluttered commandments.

Needless to say, some employees are not happy. Even worse, they're looking at planned remodeling that will eliminate some desks in favor of kiosk screens where they'll stand to do business with clients. Think of how you do business when you walk into an Apple store.

Granted, this format is business as usual for many workers. But it is a jarring change for others, especially for those who believe their work isn't conducive to open or mobile desks.

One worker mentioned that she sometimes spends an hour seated at a desk, discussing complicated financial affairs with customers. Will she be forced to stand out in the open at a touch screen, transacting personal business for all to see or overhear?

Many open work spaces have "huddle," or small consultation rooms for private conversations; others don't. So that's the career takeaway here: Check out office layout and desk assignment practices to help decide if this is a place where you want to work.