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Why CEOs Want Their Offices Back and How Millennials Are Helping Them Get There (Kind of)

Workers of every stature need workspaces that reflect the work and the culture of the company.
Why CEOs Want Their Offices Back and How Millennials Are Helping Them Get There (Kind of)
Image credit: Tinpixels | Getty Images

There’s a quiet revolt going on. You see it happening in offices all over the world. Innovative CEOs are ducking into a Starbucks to collaborate on a few ideas with the CMO. They’re working from home one morning a week just to clear their heads and prepare for a big pitch. Or they’re sticking their finger in one ear while pacing the hallway, trying to have a quiet conversation on their cellphones.

These are the twisting work lives of CEOs everywhere who succumb to the idea of the open floor plan office, but who crave the luxury and privacy of a simple door.

It’s part of a bigger trend covered in the Wall Street Journal recently, going on from startups to Fortune 100 companies known as Activity-Based Working (ABW). ABW is a recognition that throughout the day people’s tasks and the spaces they need to perform them in, change. The one-size-fits-all office space doesn’t work for anyone -- whether it’s an isolated corner office or the middle of the bullpen. Workers of every stature need workspaces that reflect the work and the culture of the company.

Related: How the Color of Your Office Impacts Productivity

A day in the life of the CEO

Let’s think about all the activities that a CEO has to do in a single day. As soon as she gets into the office, she's in go-mode. At 9 a.m. she’ll need a private conference room to rally the troops for their daily huddle. Then she'll need to hop on the phone for a private call -- in a quiet phone booth -- to handle an incoming client request. By 10:30 a.m., she's meeting with the global sales team for a video conference about the new product roll out. And by 11:30 a.m., she's meeting with the CMO and the rest of the marketing team in a collaboration space to discuss branding strategies for the upcoming trade show. Let’s not forget about a 1 p.m. lunch where she’ll need a private area to catch up with the visiting IT team from India. And let’s be honest, an allocated nap room to recharge from 3 p.m. to 3:20 p.m. would be fantastic. 

The list goes on. Many business leaders want to feel like they are a part of the team while they lead it. That’s why it’s critical to create spaces that allow employees to do their jobs as productively as possible in the spaces provided. It’s part of the reason why two-thirds of employees feel disengaged at work -- they’re simply not in the right spaces to do their work and contribute effectively. Worse, according to research from furniture manufacturer Steelcase, many employees feel that the democratized open floor plan is implemented as an effort to cut costs and remove private offices and privacy altogether. While inaccurate, the message the employee may be receiving is: My company doesn’t care about me.

One thing we know for sure: The office space is the most tangible example of how leadership values the workforce.

Related: Ready to Kill Your Company's Open-Floor Plan? Drop the Machete.

Millennials to the rescue?

The reality is, the open floor plan office can work masterfully for C-suite executives, and their employees -- just ask Michael Bloomberg, Tony Hsieh and Mark Zuckerberg, all of whom have adopted it in their own headquarters. The key is combining the open floor plan with thoughtful areas that empower them to do their best work. This is particularly the case across generational workers, who exhibit different preferences for how they work.

Millennial workers, like many of us, want to feel connected to a bigger purpose. Being seated in earshot of the CEO and other relevant colleagues allows younger workers to understand the larger mission, their work styles and how to apply those cultural and management lessons to their own work. Millennial CEOs also thrive on the buzz and hum they feel working in a hive environment where they can activate clusters of workers just by leaning over starting a dialogue or brainstorming a new idea on the fly.

Related: How to Create Productive Work Spaces for Your Company

Millennials regularly cite the desire for informal mentorship and regular, not scheduled, performance reviews. In our office, this has become the norm. Rather than a private office with a closed door, my co-founder and CEO prefers a big desk where junior employees and senior executives can hash out ideas together and pull up a chair without impeding the workflow. He can also eavesdrop on a technical conversation and share a quick insight or correct an issue before the phone call with a client ends with an, “I’ll ask my boss and get back to you.” More importantly, the openness gives him the opportunity to say, “You did a fantastic job handling that complex client issue. I’m really proud of the work you’re doing, and I’ll like to offer a few more point to kick it up a notch even further.”

Collaborative workspaces, balanced with options for privacy, creative, thoughtful, raucous celebration or meditative spaces -- many with doors that shut tight -- are the key to preserving CEO sanity and the teamwork that makes innovative offices thrive.