Originally published: Harvard Business Review


Everywhere I go, executive suites are being reconfigured so that the entire top team can have their offices together. To fit everyone on a single floor, companies are ripping out large private offices and dedicated conference rooms and building smaller, glass-walled offices, flexible conference rooms, self-service kitchens, and informal huddle spaces.

Leaders naturally want their teams sitting close to them and to one another. Frequent, informal coordination helps smooth the way to organizational effectiveness, and the personal bonds formed by working nearby can enhance a management team’s working relationships. Formal analysis proves that this positive correlation is real and quite large.

Zak Kohane, for instance, took time out from his work in computational genomics to resolve a debate on the subject with his dean at Harvard Medical School. The resulting paper measuring the correlation of distance with the effectiveness of team collaboration is, ironically, one of his most widely discussed. It offers quantitative support for the claim that office proximity significantly affects the quality of collaboration. Essentially, Zak and his collaborators showed, the closer coauthors sat to one another, the more effective the papers were that they jointly produced (as measured by how frequently the studies were cited in later articles). This was so whether the comparison was made between offices within a single building, within buildings on a single campus, or across the three Harvard Medical School campuses in Boston. “If you want people to work together effectively,” Zak concluded in a recent New Yorker article, “these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions. Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still important to create intimate spaces.”

But each time I see a building crew ripping out another old-style executive suite, I can’t help asking the CEO this question: “If sitting together increases the effectiveness of your team, doesn’t it decrease the effectiveness of the teams those executives themselves lead?”

The typical response I get from the CEOs is, “Interesting question, Bob. I hadn’t really thought about that.”

The response I get from their top team members is this: “It’s tough — either I or my direct reports spend the day running back and forth. It’s good to sit with my boss and my peers on the executive team, but it’s murder on my direct reports.”

I’m not advocating reversing the tide of office design or the trend toward top team collaboration. But I can suggest a few steps CEOs should take to minimize the drawbacks of the move.

Don’t be oblivious to the problem, since subordinates are unlikely to bring it up. It wasn’t just two or three of the CEOs I talked with who seemed surprised that efficiency at the top might cause a cascade of inefficiency elsewhere — virtually all of them did. And team members aren’t likely to bring up the issue with the boss, and risk sounding like their complaining and possibly lose their perch in the executive suite. So it falls to you to raise the issue. It’s worth having an open conversation about the likely impact of such a move on the whole organization and about preventive measures.

Provide team members with two offices — one with the boss and one with their own teams. Although executives with dual offices would tell you that a set of roller skates should be standard issue along with two locations, it’s vital that they maintain a physical link with their teams. What’s more, in many cases I’ve seen executives keep their mementos and personal effects back where their teams sit — signaling subordinates that it is their “real” office and that the one on the executive floor is merely a convenience.

Have executives block out unscheduled time when sitting with their own teams. It might be one day a week, or the days when the CEO is traveling, but whatever it is, they should make an effort to schedule uncommitted time back in their departmental offices. Spending that time locked in meetings doesn’t allow for those “Hey — have you got a minute” opportunities that are lost with relocation.

Allocate space near the executive suite for subordinates waiting to see their bosses. One thing is certain: Top team members’ direct reports — well-paid, important executives with busy schedules of their own — are going to be spending a lot of their time in or near the executive suite waiting for meetings with their bosses to begin or resume This waste isn’t usually visible. The direct reports aren’t typically sitting in chairs right outside their bosses’ offices. But they are there — in an empty conference room, camped out in a vacant office on the floor above or below — just waiting. It’s an incredible waste of valuable corporate resources. The best companies create a separate work space nearby — individual offices, workstations, conference rooms — so that these subordinates can remain productive while waiting.

Furnish executives with administrative support at both locations. The question naturally arises: If executives have two offices, where do their administrative assistants sit? I’ve seen teams take all three possible tacks: moving the assistants to the executive suite, having them stay back with the departments, spending the day wherever their bosses are sitting. There are pros and cons to each. But whichever approach you take bear in mind that whenever executives are without their assistants they will likely end up piggybacking on someone else’s administrative support to take care of basic needs like room scheduling, copying, call management, and coordination with subordinates. Instead, consider having an additional administrative assistant available in the executive suite to just help support these part-time executives on days when they’re with the top team, so that they can more freely leave their administrative support back in their other offices.

The most important thing is to recognize that an effort has to be made to minimize the negative impact of physically removing top executives from their own teams. Providing dual offices, workspace for the subordinates who will inevitably be spending parts of their days hanging around the new executive suites, and dual administrative support are among the most successful tactics I’ve seen for minimizing the downside of co-location.