The Way We Work: Forward-Thinking Firms Giving Professionals A Variety of Work Spaces to Suit Their Styles

The Way We Work: Forward-Thinking Firms Giving Professionals A Variety of Work Spaces to Suit Their Styles

Excerpted from INSIDE Public Accounting: March 2015

Silicon Valley’s tech companies – think Yahoo, Google and eBay – led the trend toward open workplaces, which feature few (or even zero) closed-door offices and larger, airy shared spaces. The idea is to encourage employees to work together freely as a team and let their creativity flow, lounging on couches or gathered at one long table.

The cubicles are coming down across the country in far less cutting-edge professions. According to the International Facility Management Association, about 70% of U.S. offices have no or low partitions.

It’s no surprise that the conservative accounting profession was not the first to jump into these new office arrangements. In fact, consultant Jennifer Wilson of ConvergenceCoaching, in Omaha, Neb., says firms that are making this shift are early adopters at “the front end of the change curve.”

The lessons learned by studying the pros and cons of open offices in other professions brought some advantages. IPA talked with leaders at the Maryland Association of  CPAs (MACPA) in Towson, Md., who is taking a middle ground rather than going from one extreme (all private offices) to another (all shared spaces).

MACPA moved into a new space at their busiest time of year last fall. CEO Tom Hood was the first to volunteer to give up his office, and he now sits close to the COO and CFO, separated by low dividers. He’s already finding that interaction is easier and more frequent. “We under-estimated how much a wall or an office door is truly a barrier to communication.”

The office has small, private rooms for three of four people, a conference room with smart technology and the rest is open, collaborative space, but everyone has their own desk and new laptop.

MACPA is serving as a model for firms in the state that are considering new office arrangements. As firm leaders tour the association office and ask questions, Hood contends that the driver should not be cost savings in square footage, it should be to adapt to the changing world of work. But having said that, the society should save half a million dollars over a 10-year lease. Space was reduced by 25%, he says.

Sending the right message is critically important, Wilson agrees, but she also says that the reality is this: Partners aren’t going to buy into this idea unless it saves money. Real estate costs are huge, and firm leaders are looking around at a lot of empty offices. While auditors have always worked off-site frequently, other professionals are working from home, and retired partners are keeping their offices but not coming in much. “It’s utterly impractical to keep doing that going forward. There are just too many retirees,” Wilson says.

Easing the Transition to a More Open Environment: “Anticipate objections and resistance,” Wilson advises. “Plan for that. Arm your leaders with objection-handling techniques so there is consistent messaging to the staff and leaders about why we’re making the change.”

Lack of privacy is one of the biggest objections to overcome, says Wilson, so offices can’t do away with closed-door offices entirely. She suggests firm leaders think about the old-fashioned phone booth, a small space where private conversations can take place. Noise is another objection, and while younger professionals don’t seem to mind it, Boomers and Generation X professionals are more bothered. A third objection is that the older leaders simply do not want to give up their offices, Wilson says. “Most people resist. Period.”

The workplace should match up with where the organization is going. How can the office environment support the way people work and how decisions are made, now and 10 years from now? Innovation, Hood says, is a team sport.