Diversity in Small Spaces Can Equal Greater Success

As I sit, often angrily, in a small space, with a boss I don’t like practically sitting on top of me, I have reason to feel heartened. History shows that when people with huge differences are forced to share small spaces, great things can happen.

I was reminded of that last week by an article in the Daily Beast: “Why Jersey City Missed Out On Being the Big Apple” by Marc J. Dunkelman. I haven’t felt the magic yet, but I’m holding out hope.

Dunkelman notes that one of the reasons for Manhattan’s success is the diversity of people from different ethnic groups and backgrounds crammed into a very small space. Anyone who’s visited New York City can testify that it’s crowded, and crowded with many different people—of all different races and cultures. It’s gotten so crowded in recent years that some of us even feel anxious at times for the lack of breathing space. The challenge of surviving tight quarters with people you wouldn’t necessarily invite to a dinner party means you’re forced to acknowledge those people’s strengths, and make the most of them. If you’re stuck on a tiny island, you make do and learn to work with—and benefit from—and even make friends with—people you might otherwise have chosen to avoid.

“Jane Jacobs offered a novel explanation for New York’s triumph,” Dunkelman writes. “In ‘The Economy of Cities,’ published in 1969, she argued that the elements most scholars cited when trying to explain metropolitan success—access to natural resources, for example—obscured one monumentally important factor: the random collision of ideas…Successful cities, she contended, managed to overlay different industries, communities, and experiences. Growth is born from innovation, and innovation emerges only when concepts can jump easily from one field to another. Because those living, working, and playing in New York were trapped between the East and Hudson Rivers and couldn’t so easily escape one another, intellectual cross-fertilization was almost inevitable. In other words, Manhattan’s tighter quarters were instrumental to the Big Apple’s success.”

I’ve always had a strong reflexive jerking-away reaction to modern open-floor office layouts. I’m an extreme introvert, and find the loss of privacy taxing. I get tired of looking at other people, smelling their lunches, and having them be aware of my every move. But an open plan can accomplish an easier cross-breeding of ideas. You may overhear a person who doesn’t work directly with you, but happens to sit nearby, talking about an upcoming event you may be able to help promote. Or they may hear you talking about an article you’re writing, or a new Website you’re helping to build, and realize they could pitch in by sending you material your audience may find useful. Being crammed together like sardines, for all its discomforts, forces you to acknowledge one another, and to benefit from one another’s insights and talents, in spite of yourselves.

Like I said, I’m still struggling with the open-floor arrangement, and my office doesn’t even have an entirely open floor. We have shared cubicles directly across from (looking into) other cubicles. So, as I’ve repeatedly complained, the boss I don’t like is inside the same cubicle with me. I was thinking to myself recently that it feels like having a roommate you don’t get along with, or are not comfortable with. I survive by listening to music (the louder and more strident the better sometimes) on noise-cancelling headphones.

I’m not the only introvert who likes privacy and separate spaces, so the question of how to benefit from the advantages of tight quarters while making people like me feel at ease still needs to be answered. With many companies moving toward more open office layouts, what do you do for your introvert employees?

An idea I had is for dividers, or walls, that can be extended and folded down as needed. Extended up, between desks for those times the introvert needs to retract back into her turtle’s shell, and folded down for other times when she may not mind interaction. I bet if an office furnishings supplier came up with cubicles with walls that could be drawn up or down depending on the occupant’s preferences, it would be a best-selling product. It gives employees forced to occupy tight quarters the option of at least having a tiny private shell to retreat into.

Another idea is to focus on the non-physical spaces your employees inhabit to encourage greater interaction. For instance, you could upgrade your intranet to allow for easier casual sharing of ideas, or you could even require employees at the beginning of every week to post brief descriptions, which everyone can see, of what they’re working on that week. Then, you could provide incentives, such as additional vacation days, or a cash reward, for other employees who substantively help their co-workers in other departments by supplying helpful resources or ideas.

Anyone who’s shared a small apartment, or cubicle, with a person they didn’t like, knows it’s highly unpleasant. It’s also unpleasant when what you most want is to do your work without feeling on display. But the upshot is similar to what they say about necessity being the mother of invention. When you’re forced into it, you make do, and even do much better than you would have under “ideal” circumstances.

How does your company leverage the diversity of backgrounds of your employees, and make it easy for employees who seem to have little in common to benefit from one another’s strengths?


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