When Wide Open Spaces and Free Range Thinking Arrive at the Office

by Elizabeth Dukes on April 22, 2014

Millions of us spend our days – and sometimes nights – at the office. Whether it’s a corporate mega-campus on acres of rolling hills or the 46th floor of a downtown high-rise, it’s often more home than home. We’re expected to do our very best work there, yet the traditional office typically forces the office worker to accommodate to its rigid infrastructure rather than the other way around. People do not perform at their best when confined.

Is the Office This Century’s Open Range?iOffice answers when wide open spaces and free range thinking arrive at the office.

That’s the message of our book Wide Open Workspace (aka W.O.W.), which we wrote to chronicle the trends in the way people work and the environments in which they work. Whirlwind changes have occurred over the last ten years in how people work, where they work, and the very nature of the office itself. The enduring image of the archetypal American cowboy and the “code” he lived by provided a metaphor that made a lot of sense to us as a parallel between the innovation, trailblazing spirit, and completely new thinking going on among today’s human resources (HR), information technology (IT), and facilities management (FM) professionals. The cowboy had to be inventive, nimble, courageous, and determined to get those cattle to market safely and profitably. Today’s office workers and the infrastructure that supports them need to be equally so to serve their markets and customers.

The Code of the Cowboy

The book breaks down the “cowboy code” into its conceptual components and addresses each, not only discussing what it means in the office space and worker context, but providing highly engaging parallels to cowboys themselves, for example, “Cowboys Ride for the Brand” . Although the Cowboys moved from ranch to ranch, they felt a strong bond to the brand they were working for. “Riding for the brand” in today’s business culture means championing the workplace as a transformative force that can provide value to the whole organization.

Driving cattle along the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas illustrates the trailblazing spirit of the cowboy and of the people who manage today’s work environments. Other pieces of the cowboy code include these, and we think each has its contemporary workplace parallel: 

  • Cowboys Get Together for the Roundup
  • Cowboys Have Ten-Gallon Courage to Do What Needs to Be Done
  • Cowboys Take Pride in Their Chores
  • Cowboys Keep an Eye Out for What Works
  • A Cowboy’s Word is as Good as Gold
  • Cowboys Share around the Campfire

To write the book, we also tapped into the very contemporary experiences of our clients, who shared their views on the evolution of the work environment. Two of the forces we heard about over and over that are driving change are:

The expectations of employees, especially younger workers. Younger workers have changed the way people view a piece of paper. They are accessing and placing documents directly in the cloud, not printing them and filing them in folders and cabinets. 

The need for improved economics in developing and maintaining space. Today’s CEOs, CFOs and facilities managers are keenly interested in new concepts that create more efficient workspaces in order to reduce the overall spend on real estate. This includes promoting worker mobility and investing in technology. While the corporation increases productivity and reduces the cost of hosting workers, employees can be more productive and experience better work/life balance.

And two other themes were often repeated. One is corporate citizenship. Employees are interested in being part of an organization that is environmentally responsible, community driven, and that promotes employee wellness. The other is collaboration. The emphasis is on collaboration and open spaces, with lots of natural light, color, mobility, and amenities.

Even the federal government, not traditionally known for being on top of what motivates workers and elicits their best performance, writes in a GSA report: “When assigning and utilizing federal workspace, Executive agencies must provide assignment and utilization services that will maximize the value of federal real property resources and improve the productivity of the workers housed therein” (Title 40 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 102-79.15 h).

The same report quotes Bud Klipa, General Manager of Steelcase, a manufacturer of office furniture. “Companies aren’t just slashing real estate footprints,” says Klipa. “They’re looking for creative ways to use the space they have and shifting some work to home offices, third places, satellite offices and other spaces.”

The Code of Collaboration

It wasn’t easy to be a cowboy. They needed to be carpenters, veterinarians, surgeons, navigators, and athletes. And since no one cowboy could be great at all of these, a trail boss needed to hire a team that could work well together and complement each other’s abilities. It’s no different today.

Technology has not only blown the concept of the workspace wide open, but it has allowed collaboration to explode within the organization. It is the duty of the FM professional to facilitate this dramatic change across the organization with other groups such as HR and IT. While IT, HR and FM professionals are charged with different responsibilities, they have in common their primary purpose: to serve the needs of employees. They ensure that they are able to work and produce results for the organization as a whole. To do this, all three groups need the same information. They need to know the employee population they serve – their contact info, their location in the organization, the type of job function they perform; the type of resources they need to perform their job. They also need the ability to report success to the C-suite, answering questions like:

  • Are we delivering high quality services?
  • Is it cost effective?
  • Is our environment flexible to meet rapidly changing marketplace demands?
  • How will we maintain our current employee base and keep them engaged?
  • How do we attract the newest and best talent?

The Unsung Heroes of the Workplace

We dedicated Wide Open Workspace to all the unsung heroes of the back office – those who make sure the doors are open, the lights are on, the air is pleasant, and the coffee is brewing. More importantly, it’s dedicated to their changing roles. It’s all about productivity and how it’s achieved in the contemporary business environment. W.O.W. is not a passing phase, but a transformation that is already touching companies around the globe. The best workspaces must be flexible, mobile, and managed by technology that gives workers what they need to be successful. 

We’re not the only ones thinking about the office. Some of our most beloved writers have tackled the subject. Robert Frost said, “The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.” Woody Allen said, “Organized crime in America takes in over forty billion dollars a year and spends very little on office supplies.” Movies like Office Space, TV series like The Office, and Scott Adams’ much beloved Dilbert comic strip have allowed us to spend time behind the cubicle partitions. 

There is simply no going back. The days of the giant cube farm are as numbered as the days of polished mahogany office doors with gold names stenciled on. Technology, globalization, and a new generation in the workforce have changed all that. The hoof-beats cannot be ignored.



Elizabeth Dukes

Elizabeth Dukes' pieces highlight the valuable role of the real estate and facility managers play in their organizations. Prior to iOFFICE, Elizabeth was in sales for large facility and office service outsourcing firm.

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