Can You Stand an Empty Office that’s Productive?

There’s no doubt about it. Millennials (and even Gen Xers) just don’t want to work the way Baby Boomers did. An all-encompassing commitment to career just doesn’t exist any more.

Obviously that’s a major challenge to CIOs who have to balance the need for onsite functionality vs. a workforce that more and more wants to work remotely or at least on its own schedule. How do you balance teamwork with the need for independence? Can you stand an empty office with no employees in front of you?

Erin Carson, a staff writer for TechRepublic, explored the issue. As she observes, In the workplace, giving employees the room to reach their objectives in the ways they see fit can be a solid leadership move — if done right. But as challenging as it can be to define what exactly freedom means, it can be equally challenging, and weirdly paradoxical, to define its boundaries.

Carson points to “more advanced technology that makes something like telecommuting a more viable option. Being open to hiring telecommuting employees can open up a talent pool previously limited by geography, a well as reduce costs associated with having employees on site. Plus, tools like Skype (and other free video calling apps) now exist and make being away from the office more manageable.”

She hits on an interesting point that some CIOs might not consider when weighing the advantages of telecommuting employees: reduced real estate costs. Sure, it’s an ego boost to have the corner office overlooking a sea of workstations but it’s also expensive.

In an interview with the Hartford Business Journal, Brian Murray, senior sales vice president of Red Thread, a Connecticut office workplace provider, discussed the reasons behind his company condensing its workspace. Cost was one factor but so was an increasingly mobile workforce.

Murray said, “Absolutely, there has been a shift towards a more mobile workforce and we need to design office environments that accommodate this new reality. The question many people ask is, ‘Do I still need a physical office space?’ The answer is yes, but the reasons many employees come into the office have changed. People come to feel connected to the company, build social relationships and work collaboratively.

“Many offices now build in shared benching for their mobile workforce as we have done in our new space. Even the footprints are much smaller for resident workers than they used to be. Smaller and more mobile technology, less storage needs, and more functional design options have allowed us to condense the square foot per individual workspace, but the upside is that we are now creating more flexible shared spaces like cafés, collaborative team rooms and private enclaves into floor plans.”

He also said, “The flexibility built into the new space allows for employee mobility, choice and control. A palette of place (different spaces that support various types of work), posture (solutions that encourage employees to sit, stand and move throughout the day) and presence (support for both virtual and face-to-face interaction) were incorporated into the design. This approach allows employees to tailor their environment to the type of work they need to accomplish at that moment in time.

Charlie Harary, partner at venture capital firm H3 & Company and a business professor at the Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University told Carson in the TechRepublic article, “What it takes on the part of managers is the willingness to let go somewhat and adjust the metrics they use to determine if work is getting done. The question is not whether a boss can see an employee sitting at a desk for eight hours, but whether the employee is producing the work they’re supposed to and meeting expectations.”

Donna Wells, CEO of Mindflash, told Carson that communication is key. “Both may have to learn new skills to successfully perform or manage non-traditional work schedules and locations without the crutches of a 9-to-5 appearance at the head office. In my experience, communication between manager and employee in the first two months is the difference between success and failure.”

Keith Griffin
Keith Griffin is an award-winning business writer and editor with more than 30 years experience as a journalist. His work has been published in The Boston Globe, Medical Economist, Good Housekeeping,, the Hartford Courant, CT Law Tribune and numerous other regional publications.