Office Space: Panacea or No?

In 1992, in my ad agency in Stockholm, Sweden, we renovated a sprawling brick building from the early 1800s at the foot of Stureplan, across from the concrete 'mushroom'. Inspired by Swedish architectural trends of the time, the office was one floor of an entire city block. The rooms didn't have walls and, without walls, there was no need for doors. The rooms opened up directly onto the open-space kitchen, enabling people to drift in and out of everyone's space. As architectural fads go, it was at first distracting, and then frustrating as wide-open ad agency space went. But it stuck. Fast-forward to 1999 when we opened a new agency in Amsterdam, it too was open plan but on 6 floors, so it changed the dynamic and limited interruptions. Then, fast-forward to 2005, and once again we opened a flourishing open space ad agency in New York City on Madison Avenue, this time with some closed offices for executives. Over the years I've heard a lot of different opinions on the layout of our offices. Which raises the question how does space affect the people working within the agency? Should the open office movement evolve again or, perhaps de-evolve? To answer this question, I spoke with a thought leader in the area of space and people, Kylie Wright-Ford, Chief Operating Officer for World 50, an invitation only community for executives.


Scott Goodson: I know you are passionate about talent and culture but why the urge to talk about office space right now? I thought you were the "people person".

Kylie Wright-Ford: The truth is that I think everything is about the people! But I am totally intrigued by the corporate pride and strutting that accompanies office redesigns with open plan design features and cool kitchens. It seems particularly prevalent right now as the war for talent heats up and millennials push us to think about different ways to structure our time and space. Even more intriguing is the optimism that I observe when senior managers assert that moving out of their offices will dramatically improve connection with their employees by simply making them more accessible or visible.

SG: Do you think we are over-indexing on physical space as a proxy for culture?

KWF: Absolutely! Watching this trend unfold in new and bold iterations is as enjoyable for me as a TV marathon of Mad Men followed by Breaking Bad on a snowy New York winter weekend. But the trend also seems fraught with some hazard. I think we risk mistaking the motion of re-designing physical spaces for action around improving the quality of a working environment. Further, I am curious to see more debate around observations in Susan Cain's fantastic book called Quiet. My interpretation is that Quiet proposes that open plans can even stifle the very thing they are used to foster - creativity. Collaboration is one thing but for us introverts of the world, it can be tough to do our best work when constantly moving and sharing and hearing.

SG: So, are you saying companies should reconsider their push to build aesthetically pleasing environments?

KWF: Not at all, I deeply admire the design companies that create interesting and beautiful office spaces and personally I love a cool space to work in. But in my experience the physical office design is the easiest part of building a great culture - not the panacea that some companies think it will be. Take for example the "easy button" of open plans (no offices or sometimes even cubicles). As someone that cut my teeth in the dealing rooms of financial services companies, I never knew anything other than open plan space. But in that environment, open plan seating didn't always correlate directly with great culture (to put it mildly!).

SG: What about the company you work for now as COO?

KWF: Well, if we scroll forward 10 years from my days in financial services, I am very happy to work for a company that has both a great office and a great culture where egos are in check, passion is palpable and one of our values is "smile more." We are always working on the really hard stuff but we certainly have the fun, collaborative and spirited open-plan office well in hand. Even as we redesign our current offices we are mostly focused on the important things like enabling our coffee habits more aesthetically. Let's face it, if you want to build a vibrant community within your workplace, a thoughtfully designed office with an eye to comfort, productivity, communication and creativity is a no-brainer. But the way harder stuff is building a talented management team that listens, sets vision, is passionate about the people and products they lead and is ultimately accountable during good times and bad. And building a successful company that honestly exhibits these traits is where the fun begins and the journey never really ends. Now, where is that barista?