What happened to the water cooler and the cubicle?


Over the last couple years with the growth of startups, consultants, open offices and flexibility in the workplace the standard nine to five, cubicle and water cooler office is seemingly a thing of the past. But what does that mean for office culture if an office doesn’t exist anymore? The days of sitting around a water cooler talking about the past evenings prime-time lineup and sports are gone. Getting set up on a date with Janet from accounting is no more. So what now?

Over the last year there have been many articles on what the new 9 to 5 is. Yahoo cut back on employees ability to work from home. A new co-working space with open floor plans pops up in every major city seemingly every month. And there has been debate on whether or not a standard 8-hour work day should be confined to a certain block of time; or even if an 8-hour work day should be standard — not to mention talk of a standard 40-hour work week and whether it is too short or too long. Startups and companies are now touting freedom in the workplace as they would compensation.

I have worked in nearly all scenarios. I do have my own personal preference that suits my work style, and I do know others that work much better in the complete opposite scenario as I do. Some people thrive in an office where suits are required everyday; one shows at 9, has lunch at 1 and leaves at 6; and one is confined to a cubicle using glimpses above the walls and the water cooler for friendly conversation. Others flourish when they can wake up with no alarm, throw on a t-shirt and work until their brain is exhausted. That person may work from their couch, the local coffee shop and a co-working space all in the same week (or even the same day). But they often end up working late hours because they always have their computer and are not confined to an office. The water cooler becomes Twitter and Google Hangouts.

In the end the key thing is for companies to allow for some freedom but with accountability. It is easy to hold people accountable when people are in the office during a set time frame because everyone is right there; but in that scenario, the employer should make an extra effort to provide comfort and fun. Working with required parameters and feeling like Big Brother is always over your shoulder doesn’t breed camaraderie, and if it does, it’s a mutinous kind. In-office happy hours, open brainstorm sessions, and an open-door policy help provide comfort while people are in the office. Slides and foosball are not necessary, but certainly don’t hurt.

When people are working on their own schedules with no one to look over their shoulder, the chance for people to slack off can be pretty high. But if tasks, timelines and expectations are clearly defined, it shouldn’t really matter how an employee works — it’s just a matter of whether or not the work gets done on time and is of good quality. When people work from home it is important to help facilitate chats and regular phone calls in order to ensure that a company culture is formed, otherwise it can feel like a bunch of silo-ed workers with no cohesive unit. You can see a little into how we at YSN work from four corners of the US by using video conferencing.

The bottom line: Every person is different and works differently; the only way to truly get the best from them is to create a culture in which everyone is comfortable in and allows some freedom. Setting those expectations and making an effort to address the downsides of your office atmosphere is important.

I will now continue to work from my couch today, but it’s going to be a late night at the “office.”