You Don’t Need a Fancy Office

I spend a lot of time in a wide variety of offices. Many leave me feeling depleted at the end of the day — as though Colin Robinson (the energy vampire from What We Do in the Shadows) has fed on me. But other office visits leave me inspired, hopeful, and looking forward to coming back.

Understanding the differences between these two kinds of offices is essential for anyone who wants to lead a great team.

We know that the best leaders create teams where people feel inspired and focused (check out this article for some counterintuitive advice). As a result, they bring the best of themselves to work each day.

It can be tempting to focus on the wrong things when assessing a team environment — like decor, lighting, and amenities. While these play a role, the critical factors are both more subtle and more profound than they suggest.

A Tale of Two Teams

Many years ago, I worked with an innovation team at John Deere in Iowa. It was the dead of winter, and their offices were filled with beige cubicles arranged haphazardly under fluorescent lights. But as I walked around this office, I felt energized, and there was a brightness and curiosity in the eyes of the people working there.

On the surface, the office looked like any other, but the angels (to invert a common phrase) were in the details. In small ways, the decor told you that this team was about something, and you could feel it.

While there is a relationship between work environment and productivity, it tends to flow in the direction opposite to what most people think. Great teams can create a productive environment much faster than an environment can create a great team. Let me explain.

At Deere, the space had some small but significant details. There were no Dilbert cartoons on the walls — the presence of which is almost always a sign of trouble in my experience. Instead, there were simple and clear posters that the team had created, describing their product vision and the customer who would use it.

When I walked around this office, I got an immediate sense of what this team was creating and who it was meant to serve. I knew what they were about — and could tell they knew it too.

About the same time I worked with Deere, I also worked with a large e-commerce marketplace based in San Jose, CA (I won’t name them because I’m not here to pick fights, but I bet you can figure it out). This company has a famous multicolored logo and brand values that are almost cartoonish.

The office was cheerful and bright, and the campus is what you might call well-appointed: good food, ample greenery, on-site dry cleaning, and open space. While the space was far more cheerful and comfortable than the Deere offices, the teams I worked with there were some of the most depressed and dysfunctional I’ve encountered in nearly three decades of work.

The product they were working on had an indistinct vision and ever-changing set of priorities. Leaders were territorial and hoarded information, budget, and “headcount” even when they weren’t sure what to do with them. There was also a lot of “rework” being done, that is, rewriting code and rebuilding features that hadn’t been done right the first time.

The work conditions sucked the life out of everyone there. And while you might think the cheerful space and amenities softened the blow, or made things bearable, they actually seemed to make things worse. The brightly colored offices, rather than soothing people, really just made me feel as if the walls (and the company leadership) were mocking us.

A Change That Makes a Difference

If you read my work, I assume you want to create a positive work environment. One that is productive, humane, and inspires the best work. I’ll also assume that you know that a great team is much more than the sum of the skills of the people on it. It is also about the context that team works in; how they interact and work together.

There is a subtle alchemy to creating a context in which high-functioning teams can develop. In my experience, the ingredients are part procedural and part relational.

Procedurally, people must be clear on what they are creating, who they are creating it for, and why it is valuable. They must also have the time, tools, and information they need to do the job. This is essential element number one.

Essential element number two is that interpersonally, people must feel respected by leaders and co-workers, and they must feel they have a voice and a degree of choice in how they approach their work.

The most common cause of team dysfunction I see missing is clarity that results in lack of focus. Often, teams are on the receiving end of a continuous stream of disjointed task assignments, which leads to team stress and interpersonal conflict, and it can’t be fixed with an office redesign.

The team at John Deere was clear and focused, while the team at the other place felt panicked and confused. At Deere, they were inspired about what they were building and were engaged in the process. The other was just trying to get through the day.

Which do you think was more creative, intelligent, and capable? Which do you think had lower attrition and was the most productive?

A healthy and clear operational context and interpersonal environment isn’t just a nice-to-have. It’s an essential component of creating great products and services. Let’s talk about fixing yours.

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