Office Configuration – An Important Concept

As the market continues to improve, more and more firms are making the decision to grow and add to staff. Much time and effort is rightfully spent by managers determining who to hire and how best to train.

Yet how much time is spent by those firms in a growth mode contemplating office configuration? Do they analyze the different physical setups available, considering strengths and weaknesses of each? Or does the manager simply implement what he has seen, “liked,” or experienced previously?

An office setup is more flexible than is generally thought, and will affect production significantly. Yet, each manner of setting up an office has strengths and weaknesses. Taking steps to select the right configuration and to minimize the inherent weaknesses will be a wise investment of time and thought for any firm.

Open Office

This is the original. No dividers, generally small desks, everyone out in full view of everyone else, and candidates interviewed at side chairs. Twenty years ago, nearly all “agencies” were designed this way.

It is still the most frequent configuration in our industry, generally utilized by owner/managers who haven’t ever been exposed to or considered any other way. It does have its advantages. It is the lowest cost of all, and the most “space effective” (i.e. most consultants in smallest space). Each person in full view of everyone else can result in a high energy level, and a slow worker is readily identified. Each consultant can hear everyone else, too, and it is thus possible to learn by listening to others on the telephone.

The “Open Office” concept, however, is utilized much less frequently now than previously. Turnover tends to be higher in this type of operation, and average fees are usually lower. The “bullpen” atmosphere is not received well by visiting clients or candidates (who must interview in the midst of the hubbub and lack of privacy). There is more emphasis on “numbers” and less on correct training and increasing skill than in firms with other office layouts. While this sort of design can be effective in smaller firms, its use in a large placement firm is sometimes linked with a “paper-mill,” “non-professional” approach. It is frequently disliked by consultants.

Modifications: If you are utilizing this design in a firm of more than eight people, the best suggestion might be to consider another configuration. See below-listed options for a significant improvement. If you do retain this setup, having separate interviewing rooms for candidates or for clients utilizing your offices for candidate screening is very helpful.

“Confidencers” (i.e., uni-directional microphones) in the mouthpiece of your telephone are effective in eliminating background noise when talking on the phone. If you utilize headsets, uni-directional microphones are also available. Consider your training program. Could it be improved? Regular sales meetings are mandatory; purchased sales training materials will help greatly to improve skills.

Acoustical Dividers

This is a good compromise between “Open Office” and private offices. Acoustical dividers are attractive, reduce background noise somewhat (though less than the manufacturers claim), while providing a sense of privacy without the negatives of private offices. Consultants can see and hear others at work, thus learning from them and allowing themselves to be energized by a busy office atmosphere.

Modifications: A private office for EIO (Employer In Office) programs (see June 2004 issue of TFL) is an asset, and “confidencers” may still be indicated. Five-foot acoustical panels seem to work best. A plain row of cubicles is not always the best choice, however. Consider the possibility of a four-desk “set” in the shape of a “plus” sign with desks facing outwards. This allows each consultant to listen to and be energized by three people rather than two (one on either side), and also allows a sub-manager-plus-three people supervisory setup. It will be important to have at least one experienced and competent consultant among the team. Four novices is not a good combination. Team contests between four-desk sets and team training meetings can work well also.

Combination Private Offices / Open Office

This refers to the practice of an open “bullpen” operation for most of the firm, with private offices for a few. Not frequently used (with good reason), this is a bad combination. The experienced people to whom the newer people should be exposed will take the private offices; the new people will be in the open section. Thus, newer people cannot learn from the experienced, and experienced people will not be pushed to do well and work hard due to being observed by newer people. It also fosters an elitist atmosphere that is not conducive to teamwork, a happy office, or a high-per-desk average.

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Modifications: Change! It would be hard to find a worse design for your office. You may need to terminate a person having a private office who resists going “back on the floor” and the perceived loss of status, but it is in the best interests of your operation to do so if necessary. Try acoustical barriers.

Two -Three People To A Room

This refers to a series of separate rooms within an office, with two or three consultants to a room. This can work very well, the key being not to group people together who have similar flaws. If you do, the flaws will become worse with subliminal reinforcement from others. Two fast-talkers will soon begin to sound like machine guns; two “social” people or slow workers will soon accomplish nothing. A major merit is that a new person will learn from an experienced one; a slow worker will gain by exposure to a more energetic one. It is not necessary to group people together in the same area of specialization.

Modifications: “Confidencers” again will cut background noise on the phone due to proximity. Acoustical barriers may be used if desired, but are probably not really needed. The real key is not to let combinations of people become permanent; occasional (or regular) rotation can really add to your office. The specific attributes of individuals can change. A new person can join your firm, or a combination can just not work well. Make it clear that changes in combinations of people will occur… and then do so when indicated.

Private Offices

This sort of office arrangement is generally seen where the owner/manager comes from a corporate non-sales background and prides himself on “professionalism.” Unfortunately, this perception of “professionalism” is not always conducive to a high per-desk average. There are four flaws to a private office design in our business. First, the cost is high. It is not a “space-effective” design. Secondly, a consultant cannot learn by listening to others on the phone, nor can they learn from him. Thirdly, he cannot be energized by seeing others working hard, and fourthly, it is entirely too easy to fall into a slow work pace or heavy influx of personal calls due to lack of supervision. The price of mistaken “professionalism” is very, very high.

Modifications: The best modification is change, regardless of possible consultant resistance. If you cannot change due to permanent walls in your office, make it a practice to leave doors open or to remove them entirely. Cultivate a management-by-wandering-around habit, and listen to your people on the phone. Have your secretary let you know when personal calls grow to excess (as they will). Get a device that keeps track of outgoing calls. Make sure daily planners are filled out. Pay close attention to numbers. And, when your lease is up, negotiate to change the layout of the office or move. This is not your best choice.

Despite the above comments, there are successful and unsuccessful firms in all of these configurations. The true key to a highly profitable office is the quality of the people, the training the consultants receive, and the system of management implemented by the owner. Nevertheless, the right office layout with modifications will maximize the efforts and skills of the firm. The result will be increased billings and improved profits from your existing staff, and continuing success as you expand in today’s growing market.

Acclaimed international author, speaker, and trainer Steve Finkel is a veteran of over 30 years and six recessions in our industry. Personnel Consultant Magazine, published by the National Association of Personnel Consultants, has referred to him as possessing "the most in-depth knowledge of search and placement in industry history." Recruitment International Magazine, Europe's largest industry publication, has described him as "the world's premier author and trainer in search and recruitment." His revised and up-to-date 360-page book Breakthrough! is now distributed in 25 countries and is also available on Amazon. Contact him at 314-991-3177 or