How to Make the Best of Shrinking Office Space

Posted on February 26, 2015

Mad Men‘s Don Draper has a desk, chairs, and a couch in his office. Plus, enough room to practice his golf putting skills, hold a meeting, and engage in inappropriate office behavior. If you’re a bigwig at your company, you may be lucky enough to have an office with a door, but the chances of a couch and place to practice your putting is pretty slim. If you’re not on the senior team? You’re lucky if you have your own three-walled cubicle. And, in many places, even the CEO is sitting at a shared table.

As office space premiums increase, employees’ personal space decreases, and it’s not all fun and collaborative. Oh sure, the one big open space in The Office allows Jim to torment Dwight more effectively, but not everyone is so creative. Instead, we get to hear things we shouldn’t.

For instance, one day, while I dwelt in cubicle land, I was on the phone with our in-house attorney, discussing the upcoming termination of an employee. After finishing the call, I turned around and discovered that said employee was standing just outside my cube, talking with someone. She gave no indication that she’d heard my conversation (whew!) but what if she had?

Fortunately, while I had been begging for private office space for a long time to no avail, this incident finally got me and my job-share partner an office. After all, if we were in charge of terminations, we should probably have some privacy. But this meant someone else got kicked to the cube, and was that person happy? Of course not.

And while my work required privacy, what if your work doesn’t strictly require privacy? Is it OK in that case to not even have a cubicle, but to sit right next to your co-workers? After all, you only need enough space for your laptop. Many people don’t even have office telephones any more–every call goes directly to your cell phone.

Many people feel that this close type of seating arrangement can boost creativity and collaboration, but it can also boost TMI. For instance, in The New York Times, Bryan Langlands shared his story of how his whole office found out about his coming colonoscopy due to close quarters at the office. (We’ll ignore the irony of addressing your lack of privacy by explaining, in detail, why you want privacy to The New York Times.)

Some people need room to breathe and room to think. Some people just need a little space and some need a little quiet. Open office plans, tiny cubes, and no doors that shut can exacerbate the lack of privacy at work. When your company doesn’t have the funds to give everyone a Don Draper-styled office, here are some things you can do to help alleviate the close quarters problem.

Have an available private space. It can be small office with a desk (and if you do use office phones, a phone that can be programmed with anyone’s number). It needs to be clear that this isn’t a place for someone to set up shop permanently, but only a place for people to use from time to time. Some people may need to use it to make a personal phone call while others may need it to be able to work without interruption on a particular project.

Embrace telecommuting. Telecommuting doesn’t solve all privacy complications (for instance, there is no school today and my daughter is reading over my shoulder as I’m typing this, helpfully pointing out any grammatical errors), but it certainly does solve most of them. Some businesses and some employees don’t work well with the telecommuting model, but a lot do. If you’re not going to have privacy at the office, make sure that everyone who can has the opportunity to work from home.

Acknowledge that sometimes people need a break. If your employees have no privacy at the office, don’t freak out when one of them disappears for a while. She’s probably taking a walk or went out for a long lunch because that’s what she needs in order to maintain her level of work. Not everyone loves constant contact with everyone.

Invest in high-quality headphones. Many people bring their own, of course, but consider it a cost of doing business if you’re not springing for gobs of office space. Some great, noise-canceling headphones can help ameliorate the constant noise present in open office spaces and cubicle farms.