Career Advice Sep 30 2011

Should You Work in a Flexible Office?

By kelly eggers

Is a lack of personal space on the job a deal breaker? These days, sharing space at work has become a reality.

In Sign or Decline, FINS' informal online question forum, 66% of 360 respondents said they'd take their dream job if there were no assigned desks in their new office. In other words, everyone has to share.

UBS and PricewaterhouseCoopers are just a couple of big-name firms that have made the switch from traditional cubicles to more flexible workspaces. Most companies that do it, do it for the cost-savings; both real-estate and energy expenses are typically lower since there's less wasted space on a daily basis.

It's particularly relevant for companies with a large number of telecommuters or "hotellers," people who shuttle between different office locations regularly. According to a 2010 study from Regus , a Luxembourg-based flexible-workspace provider, nearly 55% of desks in an office are empty at any given time. By having fewer, unassigned desks, companies can cut down on the number of regularly vacant seats.

Despite the benefits it may offer an employer, flexible offices are not necessarily a good thing for employees.

Amy Zhang, a certified public accountant and current managing member of San Francisco-based financial-services firm Affinity Fund Services, is a former employee of PwC, where there are no assigned desks for employees. She said that the pros and cons of this type of environment depend on the nature of your job and how collaborative or independent it is.

"For firms that have different team members on various projects, no assigned desks works really well," Zhang said. "Even though you may be with different team members on every single project, you can always get a big enough space for that particular team, and when the next project comes up, you just pick up your laptop, some files and go to the other table to join the other team."

By working in an unassigned space, however, you run the risk of having fewer established relationships with your colleagues. "It's usually difficult to establish a true relationship with your new neighbor if he or she is just there that one day," she said. Research has indicated that friendships between coworkers increase productivity, morale, and positive attitudes towards working in general. If the absence of those relationships could make your days less enjoyable, you may want to steer clear of a company that won't give you your own desk.

Those offered a job at a company that has flexible office space should think twice, said Jack Goncalo, an organizational behavior professor at Cornell's industrial and labor relations (ILR) school. "If the sound of it makes you apprehensive, you're probably not going to like it when you get there. The percentage of people who think 'I'd really enjoy that' is probably small," he said.

"If you're the kind of person who would be upset by not having the same desk every day, being out of the office, having projects changing regularly, and constantly talking to new people, it might not be a good job for you anyway," Goncalo said. "In this sense, self-selection is a good thing for companies and their employees. This type of office setup could scare off the people who wouldn't be good for it."

Related: Six Reasons Why Everyone Needs an Office

What Would You Do?

Answer the question and see how you match up with the rest of the FINS community.

You've just been offered your dream job, but... you have no assigned desk -- everyone shares.


Write to Kelly Eggers

Sign or Decline is a series of questions on that ask what you would do for your dream job. Since its launch late last year, over 100,000 answers have been received and compiled in our database. Participate in Sign or Decline here.

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