When I joined a fledgling Allison+Partners as a junior practitioner almost 18 years ago, I was shocked to arrive at an office that was more like a newsroom than a corporate workspace offering private spaces to career climbers like I intended to be. Where would I get my writing done, and how would I know I had finally made it?
Little did I know that those non-hierarchical seating arrangements, including my placement next to CEO Scott Allison’s cubicle – yes, cubicle! – would help me navigate company culture and hone my PR and leadership skills. Being surrounded by senior employees was a crash course in how to be successful at my job. For that reason, the hard-won corner office I now enjoy as a partner in our global agency must go!
Remote workers have proven their ability to be productive at home, but they have missed out on the in-office exchanges that build trust, develop staff and help new employees learn how to behave by observing others. To maximize informal learning in the hybrid workplace, senior leaders must break out of our offices and away from our pre-COVID-19 tendency to work behind closed doors.
With the flexibility to work from home on writing and planning tasks, we can and should spend more time interacting with colleagues when we’re in the office. This requires flipping the traditional office setup, using executive offices as shared spaces for team meetings, presentation rehearsals and private calls and open areas as seating for all, regardless of level. Such proximity allows leaders to provide in-the-moment mentoring and model behaviors that give others permission to spend in-office time building relationships. These include participating in an ad hoc brainstorm, getting a colleague’s take on a challenge, offering acknowledgment of a job well done or asking about a coworker’s current projects or long-term career aspirations.
It’s also important to reevaluate seating charts. Instead of grouping staff by function, cross-department “neighborhoods” ensure everyone is exposed to new ideas and people. We also need to devote time to rituals. At Allison+Partners’ headquarters in San Francisco, we hit a gong when we win a new client, enjoy staff-taught yoga and beer appreciation (aka Wellness Wednesday and Thirsty Thursday), and participate in fitness challenges, with CEO Scott Allison sweating it out with the rest of us. These gatherings create a celebratory atmosphere and provide additional opportunities for staff to mingle.
Such in-the-trenches leadership will help ensure our physical workspaces provide the kind of spontaneous interactions we’ve missed during the pandemic and foster a culture of mentoring where all members of the organization, especially those at the mid to senior levels, are active in growing new and junior colleagues.
Partner Courtney Newman leads employee engagement for 500+ A+Pers in the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific. Her career highlight is the agency’s perennial “Best Places to Work” designation.