From Cubicle to Coffee Shop, Here’s How to Own Your Workspace

Written by Paul Marchildon, on April 29, 2014.

It’s not the space; it’s the mind occupying the space that transforms the cubicle, the corner office, the open concept bullpen, or the living room couch into fertile ground for innovation. JK Rowling created worlds of magic at cafes and coffee shops.

Albert Einstein “hatched his most beautiful ideas” at a stuffy patent office. Bill Gates started a little computer company in his garage. While every type of workspace has its peccadillos, each can be conducive to good work, high productivity, and employee satisfaction. The key is owning your space – and making it work for you.

Cubicles: ‘The Absolute Worst’

Oh, cubicles, no one likes you. Especially if you have high walls. When we redesigned our workspace at Atlantis, we had…cubicles. I know. But there were some fundamental differences: the walls allowed privacy while you were sitting down, but you could stand up and have a conversation with your coworker.

Now, the reason why cubicles are so maligned is that people feel as though they have no privacy, and the type of noise this type of set-up creates is tremendously distracting. Lack of “sound privacy” is the biggest gripe of cubicle workers. Believe it or not, it’s worse in cubicles with high partitions. Researchers think it’s because people can’t see where the noise is coming from, which takes away any sense of control they have over the situation.

Employees Lacking Motivation?

Paul Marchildon, an experienced Leisureologist, can work with you and your team to increase productivity by incorporating leisure into the workplace.

Own Your Cubicle

If you can’t tear down the walls, decorate them. A study in the Journal of Psychology found that when people personalize their workspace, it reduces the negative impacts of low privacy levels. Less personalization – fewer knickknacks, tchotchkes, and pictures of the kids – increases emotional exhaustion.

If you do work in an office setting with cubicles, invest in some thumb tacks, inspirational posters, and, maybe some noise-cancelling headphones.(At Atlantis we provided these to anyone who requested them).

Open-Concept Offices

At first glance, open offices might seem just as lacking in visual and sound privacy as cubicles, if not more so. Then we look closer! The setup facilitates cooperation – you can just swivel yourself over to a coworker for help on a project, for instance, and when done right, noise isn’t a problem.

At Maritz, we used Steelcase furniture to facilitate collaboration. These people create brilliant solutions. We’d have pods of four people working with their backs to each other, for instance. In between was a bit of an aisle. Each desk had a little extension on the left that was on rollers. You could snap all four together to create a little table. The space between the desks instantly became a meeting room.

Open concepts have a host of benefits: to accommodate the same number of people, you need a lot less space. This enables you to create a comfortable work area, task-specific zones, and enclosed rooms for private meetings and conferences.

Owning Your Open Office

If your office doesn’t offer enclosed spaces or other “zones” for working when you need silence, you can cancel noise with headphones or listen to music. To avoid distractions, many people put up little “Do Not Disturb” signs when they need to power through a project.

But because people can see each other, they tend to keep conversations at a more muted level. John Ferrigan, an office design consultant, calls this the “library effect.” When you are “more aware of the people around you, you’re not going to be as boisterous on the phone, because you can see that there is someone just a couple feet away from you that could be disrupted.”

Working from Home

Working from home makes sense in some situations: you have a morning meeting that’s close to your house, and it doesn’t make sense to go all the way to the office after. You’ve got a long commute, it’s crunch time, and you could really use those two hours for work. Working from home can be highly productive and efficient, but it’s not for everyone.

Those dishes really need to be done. Why don’t I do the laundry real quick? Oh, look, I DVR’d Game of Thrones. There are a lot of distractions, and you have to be disciplined enough to ignore them. Another issue is that you miss out on the social component of work. Sure, you can meet via Skype or GotoMeeting, but it’s not quite the same as a face-to-face interaction. Soon, you’re never getting out of your pajamas.

Own Your Home

Get dressed, and go to a coffee shop. Being self-unemployed, as I call it, I’m at a café more than I’m at home – and I’m much more productive. I get some coffee, chat about the weather, and just crank out the work. I fill the social need, along with the caffeine need.

If coffee’s not your thing, there are lots of other places you can go. The Centre for Social Innovation, for instance, rents out private and shared offices, desks, and HotDesks so you can book the space you need to work. They have everything: copiers, faxes, high-speed, kitchens, audio-visual equipment, mailboxes, and, perhaps best of all, people! Real, live people who are engaged in their work and want to network.

The quality of the work you produce isn’t dependent on your workspace. It’s dependent on your ability to embrace the benefits and to overcome the drawbacks. When you can block out the “noise” – whether it’s a loud coworker chatting on the phone, a colleague who keeps interrupting, or a sink full of dirty dishes – you can hatch some pretty beautiful ideas yourself.

Paul Marchildon

Paul Marchildon

A self-proclaimed Leisureologist and Motivational Speaker, Paul Marchildon applies his vast expertise in human engagement to help leaders create more productive, effective organizations. Building on an influential career as a pioneer in employee incentive and loyalty programs, strategic creative communications, social media and mobile marketing, Paul provides insight into the advantages of incorporating a leisure culture in the "work" place. He is past president of Society of Incentive and Travel Executives’ (Site) Canadian Chapter and founder of Atlantis Creative Group (now part of Maritz Canada). He is one of a select group of Canadians who have received the Certified Incentive Travel Executive (CITE) designation.