Does Feng Shui Work For Introverts?


Well, it depends. I was tapped for my “minority opinion” on this one. Can we accommodate the need for introverts to have space for solitude in open space environments?  Scroll down to see my answer below:

From Ignites (owned by the Financial Times).a daily publication for the Mutual Fund industry.

Firms Turn to Feng Shui to Foster Workplace Harmony 

By Beagan Wilcox Volz March 26, 2012

For many fund firm employees, striking up a conversation with the CEO or other top executives is very intimidating. But some firms are now trying to break down the barriers that typically exist between different levels and departments of employees — literally.

For example, rank-and-file workers and the CEO now sit at similar desks in an open floor plan at Russell Investments. In its new headquarters in Seattle, the firm no longer has individual offices. With its new work space, Russell is “taking away the traditional hierarchy that goes with an office” and putting the emphasis on one’s position or role, rather than on where one sits, says Alan Young, principal at NBBJ, the architecture firm that designed Russell’s new offices.

Through the open design, the firm seeks to encourage more interaction among all of its employees, ultimately aimed at greater creativity and innovation. Indeed, the basic premise of office designs with more open space is to provide a vehicle for people to communicate more freely, “without the encumbrance of offices, doors and walls,” Young says.

There’s a caveat, however. Simply putting everybody in one big open space usually does not create a good work environment. “Really, the key ingredient is that you provide a variety of workplace venues” that accommodate different kinds of work styles, Young says. To this end, Russell’s new offices have an assortment of smaller rooms, separate from formal conference rooms, for impromptu meetings or simply a private phone call in a comfy chair.

The idea of using the physical attributes of a workplace to foster productivity and innovation is not new. Steve Jobs reportedly nixed the idea of three separate buildings for Pixar: one with computer scientists, the second for animators and the third for everybody else. He also insisted that there be only two centrally located bathrooms in the entire Pixar studios. These decisions forced employees of all different backgrounds to mingle.

“And now you can talk to people at Pixar and they all have their ‘bathroom story.’ They all talk about the great conversation they had while washing their hands,” Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, recently told National Public Radio.

Financial services and law firms have tended to take a more conservative approach to their workplaces and employ less open space, “but we’re seeing a lot of transition in both of those market sectors,” says NBBJ’s Young.

Young also notes that there’s a lot of pressure emerging in the workplace to start catering to the millennial generation. Workers of this generation want multipurpose spaces where they can collaborate with their teams. Contrary to baby boomers and others, they don’t want offices.

“The idea of putting themselves in a box and shutting the door is so alien to them as a generation as a whole, and they don’t thrive in that type of environment,” says Young. “You better provide spaces that are dynamic” for millennials, he adds.

Columbia Management hasn’t eliminated individual offices, but like Russell, the firm made some big changes when it moved its headquarters early last year to new offices in the top six floors of 225 Franklin Street in Boston. The firm had been in three different locations and the move permitted its Boston-based employees to work in one building. In addition, Columbia had time to gut the floors and “get creative with the space,” says Amy Unckless, chief administrative officer

The firm had always wanted there to be more dialogue across the investment division. In its old buildings, the fixed-income and equities divisions were on different floors. In the new space, Columbia combined the equity and fixed-income trading floor. The firm also made sure the trading floor has intercoms and screens so that traders can communicate easily with the firm’s other trading floors around the world, says Unckless.

Columbia also wanted to foster more interaction among its operations group, as well as its internal sales desk. To do so, the firm decided to go with clusters of people working together in low cubicles. The level of the partitions on the cubicles vary depending on the work group; the legal team has slightly higher cubes for greater privacy, and the sales team has lower ones, says Unckless.

The new space has a perimeter of individual offices, but glass from floor to ceiling allows natural light to pour into the entire space. “One of the best features of the space is the light,” says Unckless.

American Funds also has used architectural design to encourage employees from different departments to mix. Its facility in Irvine, Calif., where the firm has more than 1,900 service center and tech support employees, was designed with this in mind, says company spokesman Chuck Freadhoff.

Six buildings form a U shape around a large central courtyard where people can be seen eating their lunch or tossing a Frisbee. The buildings are connected with covered walkways and the ground floor of each has a café and seating area. There’s also a central cafeteria.

“We want to foster interaction among the folks who work there,” says Freadhoff. “We want it to be the Capital community, not just a cubicle.”

The courtyard at American Funds’ Irvine campus serves as more than just a meeting place, according to at least one expert. Jennifer Kahnweiler, executive coach and leadership consultant, strongly encourages employees to get outside during the workday. “Much of our creativity comes when we’re not in the cubicle,” she says.

Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength, also emphasizes that firms that have opted for more open work spaces must also provide employees with more private rooms where they can work and think in a quiet environment, and encourage workers to use them. While some employees may not want such space, the introverts among us, who make up about 40% to 50% of the population, need those spaces to be productive, she says.

There needs to be enough of these kinds of rooms so that they don’t always have to be booked in advance. At a lot of companies, she says, people have to fight for a conference room because of their scarcity.


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