Mots d'experts

The individual private office: dinosaur or phenix?

June 2022

Expert

Marc Bertier

Marc Bertier

Workplace Strategist

+33 52 65 25 99

mbertier@kardham.com

After eliminating individual offices, a number of large users are once again discovering spaces that resemble... individual offices in their work environments. The ESSEC Workplace Management Chair's My Post-Containment Office III survey (of 1,868 people, April 2021), in fact, indicates that 63% of respondents would prefer to work in a closed office, either individual or shared. So, what about the individual office?

When she analyzes the current evolution of work methods (the new ways of working / NWOW), the sociologist Danièle Linhart places the debate on the work environment in the context of new work organizations. According to her, the abolition of desks (after that of secretaries) would rather mark the bringing into line of managers; it would be a question of making them understand that they must, like all employees, submit to procedures and protocols. The individual office would thus be the mark of a fight for autonomy.

In the work environment models developed in the 1990s by Frank Duffy, the more autonomous and interacting employees were, the more their workspaces should be of the shared type; correlatively, autonomous and solitary work was best served by an individual office. In this sense, a knowledge worker (autonomous worker who uses abstract knowledge) should have an office, a manager should not. On the other hand, in a NWOW approach, job sharing is accompanied by an increase in the freedom of individuals, who are free to work whenever and wherever they want, as long as it is in dynamic environments. Managers who spend a lot of time interacting would therefore be more likely than knowledge workers to ask for an individual office or a closed meeting room. To complicate the matter, various studies show that those who value dynamic environments the most are the most mobile, i.e. managers and project leaders who go from meeting to meeting, which is not the case for knowledge workers, who are more static and focused on background tasks.

The definition of the workspace does not therefore seem to depend solely on criteria derived from this rationality. Autonomy, mobility and interaction are insufficient indicators. At this point, a reminder of the arguments of both sides is necessary. On the "pro-individual office" side, the advantages most often mentioned are: possibility of concentration, feeling of intimacy, well-being (in particular by withdrawing from the gaze of others), appropriation of space, absence of feeling of interchangeability. In addition, anchoring is made easier since the person looking for you knows where to find you. Finally, an office is a tangible proof of success.


Edward Hopper painted Conference at night in 1949, a time when meeting rooms were not yet privatized by managers in need of individual offices.


On the "anti-personal office" side, it is argued that this type of space: would be mainly an archaic mark of old-fashioned work, not to say "daddy-style"; moreover, don't many managers willingly transform their office into a creativity room open to the whole team to show their modernity?

Others still prefer to give up their office and be treated the same way as their teams. For space managers, the individual office and its codes are also often problematic: its occupants are generally reluctant to move during reorganizations or when closed offices are removed to accommodate new employees; when there are waves of promotions, there is sometimes a shortage of windows to create new ones; the individual office is an obstacle to cost optimization through densification. The individual office is a major consumer of space, taking up an average of about 15 square meters (per person), but by sharing workstations and telecommuting two or three days a week, this figure can easily be cut in half.

The trend towards the elimination of individual offices is therefore not essentially linked to telecommuting; it is concomitant with the advent of the NWOW and its spatial corollary, the dynamic environment. In fact, it is from the beginning of the 2010s that companies start to limit their number, notably by setting an upper limit (e.g., no more than 10% of workstations in individual offices) which will be progressively lowered to aim for total elimination. This type of policy has worked rather well, particularly for jobs directly linked to production (engineering, sales teams, etc.). In the head offices, the issue has often been more delicate. For managers, new types of spaces have been created, sometimes inspired by airport first class lounges. But local managers have had to come to terms with working in the middle of their teams. For managers of managers, the issue has often been more difficult. Some have privatized, more or less officially, meeting rooms. Employees then received an often convoluted email from their n++, stating that room 3.47 would be reserved for their use in the future.

Today, therefore, everyone could be justified in asking for an individual office, but this was not always the case. Employees were once grouped in rooms, often large ones, where they worked under the supervision of a foreman. Private offices were reserved for engineers and members of management, i.e., those who thought about the work and how to work. In France, these two groups belong to the broad category of executives (in some circles, such as in the hospital, one still sometimes hears: "My executive told me that..."). According to INSEE, the category of executives includes all employees with a high level of knowledge or who belong to the world of arts and media. They are therefore more or less knowledge workers. This category also includes employees who have important responsibilities in the management of companies, especially because they supervise other people (what we commonly call managers). The evaluation of the number of potential beneficiaries of the individual office therefore requires the quantification of executives and managers within companies and the administration. The first exercise consists of determining the proportion of executives within companies in the service sector. To do this, we can base ourselves on a study carried out by the Regional and Interdepartmental Directorate for the Environment and Development (DRIEA, Ministry of the Environment), in 2020, which classifies the Professions and Socio-professional Categories (PCS), according to whether they are office or non-office. By cross- referencing with INSEE data, we can see that the share of executives is constantly increasing. They represent nearly 54% of office workers in 2019, compared to 30.5% in 1989, a growth of 77% in 30 years.

Determining the share of managers in office jobs is even trickier. Two studies attempt to quantify this population. The first, conducted by APEC, shows that 45% of executives are direct line managers (or managers), 22% lead a project team and 33% have no supervisory responsibilities. The second, carried out by Opinion Way, adds complexity to the estimate of the number of managers by pointing out that a quarter of managers are managers of managers. It also mentions that 59% of managers are not executives.

By combining the three sources, we can estimate that in the "average" company in the service sector, 54% of employees are managers, broken down into : 18% operational managers / knowledge workers; 12% project managers; 24% managerial staff, including 6% managers of managers (of which 2% are company directors). To respond to this diversity of situations, setting rules for the allocation of individual offices can be a solution that avoids conflicts.

For some, a key element for the implementation of the change and its subsequent smooth functioning should be added: managerial exemplarity. Regardless of their personal position, managers and executives should set an example to facilitate acceptance of the project, or even save it in some cases. Managerial exemplarity is "the ability of a line manager to implement, on a personal basis, the demands he or she makes of the employees directly under his or her responsibility. It is the demonstration by example of the attitudes and procedures that everyone should adopt to ensure good work organization, develop performance and promote team cohesion.

Studies (notably in social psychology) evaluating the behavior of employees according to the level of exemplarity of their managers show that the more exemplary the latter are, the more trust their employees have in them. Conversely, the absence of exemplary behavior increases distrust and cynicism towards the organization and reduces the ability to mobilize in the event of organizational change. It is therefore desirable that executives and managers are exemplary when a new work environment is introduced. But does this assume that the same set of rules, based on the triptych autonomy-mobility-interaction, applies to everyone? How to integrate the essential roles of embodiment and reference point?

One of the biases related to exemplarity is that it is a perceived personal quality. Some will display a façade of exemplarity during the preparatory phase of the project, but will not change their behavior once in the new environment. A few will do the opposite and remain locked into the image they want to project. If exemplarity is not defined from an ethical and moral point of view by the company, everyone will interpret it according to their own conception. Exemplarity is therefore a fragile concept, especially during periods of change (of the context and of the actors, notably through arrivals and departures). Once the project has been deployed, companies also often neglect to designate ethics referents who can intervene in the event of deviant behavior (as in the case of room 3.47), and also to draft a manual of good practices and behaviors to perpetuate them for new hires.

Finally, among the good reasons to reintroduce ersatz offices in work environments is the possibility to make a place their own, and to create a protective cocoon for the worst days as well as the best.

Offices, which become team places, not only support work interaction, but also allow to display pictures of the team or to celebrate an event. They are landmarks, places for reunions and shared moments. They don't have to be large spaces; they just have to bring the members of a close-knit team together. It remains to determine the right number of these spaces and to ensure that managers set an example to guarantee their functioning.

Investing in such spaces questions the vocation of the workplace: a place to meet, to socialize, you said?

 


TO GO FURTHER

  • Danièle Linhart, L’insupportable subordination des salariés, Éditions Érès, 2021
  • APEC, Compétences attendues chez les cadres, apec.fr, 2019
  • Léa Zhe Wang, L’impact de l’exemplarité managériale sur l’acceptation du changement organisationnel, cref. parisnanterre.fr, 2017
  • Valérie Melin and Théophile Plée, Former à l’exemplarité : outil managérial ou préoccupation éthique ?, Revue d’histoire et de prospective du management, cepn.univ-paris13.fr, 2018
  • OpinionWay for Maison du Management, L’état de l’art du management en France, opinion-way.com, 2017

Release date: Mardi 14 Juin 2022

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