office space: does size matter?

Two readers, two different questions about office space.

Reader #1 writes:

I just went through a series of really positive interviews with a large university, and the signs are good. They asked when could I start if an offer was made, what is my desired salary, all that stuff. I’m excited about the position and the people seem solid. So here’s my question: in the event that they offer me a job, is it undesirably off-putting for the hiring manager if I ask about the physical space where I’d be working? I’m claustrophobic, and a bit scarred from a previous job where my desk was in a closet-sized space with no windows and a chronic mouse problem. (Seriously. I could touch both walls from my desk, and there were traps on the floor.)

The interviews have taken place in a regular conference room, and apparently the actual department is located in a rambling old “annex” building that I haven’t seen. I don’t want to be high maintenance, but this is potentially a real concern for my day-to-day job performance. Is there any way to bring this up constructively, without torpedoing my chances at a good job in a lousy economy?

Wait until you’ve been offered the job. Once have you been, as you’re talking over various aspects of the offer, say something like this:   “I have what will probably sound like a weird question. I tend to get claustrophobic in very small spaces, and I once ended up in a closet-sized office that wasn’t the easiest to focus in. Since I didn’t get to see your offices when we met, is there anything you can tell me about the physical space I’d be in?”

I find that you can get away with asking pretty much anything, as long as you acknowledge up front that it might be a weird question and are nice about it, possibly including being self-deprecatory. It’s when people don’t seem to know that there’s anything out of the ordinary about their weird question that it becomes worrisome.

Reader #2 asks:

I joined a small company as the “compliance department” (a new position). This position is exempt, and I act independently and have a fair amount of authority. When I was hired, we were getting ready to move to a larger location, so I didn’t say anything when I was placed in a cubicle since there wasn’t anywhere else for me to sit. However, to my surprise, in our new facility I was located to a small cube the same size as the entry-level administration staff.

I have the space I need — except when someone requires a confidential conversation, at which point we can go to a nearby conference room. But I don’t have even a visitor’s chair for those non-confidential conversations people need to have with me. Senior staff does not question my authority, so I act with the authority given me, but I do get questioned by some of mid & lower staff.

How important do you think office size and type is to the general employee? I am concerned that people are not approaching me when they should because of the inability to have a private conversation in my office. I also don’t want to come across as a complainer. When we were moving in, I made a remark to my boss about the location and lack of privacy of my office, but he didn’t want me to move — though it could have just been a bad/stressful time to bring it up. There are other (larger) cubicles and at least one walled office available. A couple of employees have asked why I don’t have an office with a door. So, does size matter? When should an employee have a private office?

It sounds like you have a couple of different concerns here that are all getting blended into one, so let’s separate them out:

* You’re concerned that people aren’t coming to you when they should because they’re put off by the lack of privacy. You can meet with them in a conference room, but they may not realize that.

* You don’t have anywhere for people to sit during non-confidential conversations.

* You’re concerned that your physical office space may be signaling to some staff that you have less authority than you do.

It’s very hard to argue this last point with your boss without looking … petty or inappropriately hung up on symbols of status. Plus, if I were your boss, I’d be concerned that you were relying on your office space to get the respect you need to do your job. (I’m not saying that you are, but that’s how it might come across.) So I’d recommending dropping that one. If you’re having issues with some of the staff not respecting your authority, that’s an issue you’ve got to deal with separately from the office space issue.

The other two are legitimate issues, though, and worth addressing. Pick a time when your boss isn’t stressed out and seems to be in a good mood — possibly after you’ve just done something great. Say something like this: “Bob, I’d like to ask you about something. I’m finding that my job requires having a lot of conversations with people, and there’s not room where I currently am for a second person to sit down with me. Ideally I’d love to move somewhere that has the option of privacy when a conversation is confidential, but even just getting room for a second chair would help me do my job.”

Keep the focus on what the work requires and why, and don’t get into your personal preferences. He still may have reasons for not being able to move you, but these reasons are going to be a lot more compelling than personal preference or concerns about appearances. Good luck!

{ 55 comments… read them below }

      1. Lina

        OP 1: Are you sure you were working? It sounds like you were in a torture chamber. I think you can count on this new place being better, at least!

  1. JT

    In the case of the claustrophobic person, if a large enough office isn’t available, what about seeing if there is an open plan area with other employees, or even a shared office? Maybe that would be comfortable enough.

  2. Anonymous

    NO !!!!! Do not mention you have a weird question and were claustrophobic – they will laugh at you for days !!!!! You’ll sound weird. Just ask whether you can see your office space or explain that having confidential conversations in your last position was an issue ( yes, make it up) and you were wondering whether the space offers privacy and room enough for two to talk comfortably. DO NOT sound like the odd new hire

    1. Long Time Admin

      I agree. You don’t want to be known forever as the “weird claustrophobic nut”. Just ask to see your work area, and if they don’t let you see it (for whatever reason), beware. They know if they’re putting you in a dungeon. Hiding your work area is one big gigantic red flag.

      Just don’t mention your claustrophobia.

    2. Wilton Businessman

      I agree. Ask them for a tour of your environment and possibly where your workstation might be. I think that’s perfectly reasonable without getting into your nuttiness.

      1. KellyK

        While I agree with the “don’t bring up claustrophobia” advice, I think that calling someone “nutty” because of something like that is awfully harsh and judgmental.

        If you choose not to mention the claustrophobia, it’s because you might be working with people who are judgmental or have biases about mental health stuff, and you don’t know them well enough to know that yet, not because claustrophobia is some terrible thing you should be ashamed of.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      If someone asked for a tour of their workspace before they could accept an offer, without explaining why, I would think they were a huge prima donna. I don’t think there’s an option other than to explain the reason.

      1. Catherine

        For that reason, I would ask at the initial interview rather than when an offer is made (and are they really going to want to wait a few days until you can make it back, see the space, and *then* decide?). It may be more common in my field, which is very collegial, but in the only interview I’ve gone on that didn’t already include a tour of the facility, I’ve asked for one, and no one seemed surprised at all. I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary at all about wanting to know what the basic working conditions are like–I think it would actually sound weird to explain why you want to know. There’s no need to make it sound like you have special problems, when the once-over pleasant/unpleasant judgment everyone wants to make is going to be enough for the reasons you have.

      2. Jamie

        I was thinking about this (sometimes it actually helps reboot my brain to think about stuff not directly affecting the circle of hell that is my work right now) and I wonder if how this is received depends on the position?

        I may be looking at this from my own myopia. I’ve always been shown my work space before accepting, and I’ve actually had mine moved (due to the hooting co-worker in the next office.)

        It’s possible that either IT people are seem as prima donnas anyway so no one thinks anything of us being precise and demanding…because now that I think of it more than once I’ve been shown my area and also the alternatives if I would be happier elsewhere.

        The more I think of it, the more I think Alison is right. If you mention it in a self-deprecating way than anyone who thinks les of you for the claustrophobia is a jerk. I would be fearful that people who don’t know anything about it might assume a greater impact than it has. I mean it’s one thing to need an office bigger than a closet. It’s another to not be able to go into the supply closet, ride an elevator, etc. I know nothing about it (I could write a book about my own personal issues along this line, however, so I’m not judging) and I would ask – but some people might just assume it’s more limiting.

        Personally I can work anywhere environment wise – as long as I could have noise canceling headphones and no co-workers tapping me on the shoulder startling me. For me it’s all about noise – certain types of noise. I can’t stand it, lose focus, and it makes me very hectic inside. Droning background noises are fine…traffic, machine noise, servers humming…I don’t even hear them. Talking, phones, changing radio stations, shuffling papers…I would lose 90% productivity.

        I am wondering if the strangeness of the request is position dependent.

      3. Long Time Admin

        Allison, I don’t see why asking to see the workspace makes someone a prima dona. I’ve almost always had a tour of the place after the second interview. Most even asked if I needed anything special (a different chair, for example) to be comfortable there. A friend of mine asked to see the offices during an interview, and they refused. She asked to use the restroom and talked to the women who were in the restroom, and based on what they said about the company, decided that this was not a place she wanted to work.

        It’s obvious that you’re a manager, and we’re job seekers.

  3. Long Time Admin

    OP # 2 – AAM is right on with this one. If you need to have confidential conversations with employees, you need to have an office with a door that closes. This is more a requirement of the job than anything else.

  4. Jamie

    #1 – Personally, I would ask to see the work space once an offer is made, as that’s reasonable…but I wouldn’t mention claustrophobia or previous issues. That’s just me, but I would be wary of coming across high maintenance. If you could touch both walls from your desk (and I’m having a tough time with the logistics of this since I don’t think most people can touch both sides of their desks at the same time…but spacial awareness has never been my strong suit.)

    #2 I totally agree with bringing up any work related issues to your boss and figuring out how to solve them (need for a chair, etc.)

    It seems to me that if you have access to a room for confidential conversations, the main problem is not having seating for the non-private conversations. Just having a chair there where people can talk would make the confidential issues a moot point…you can just pick up and go to the other room.

    If you mention the issues you’re having with authority, or it bothering you that you have the same sized cubicle as entry-level people then any valid work related issues could be dismissed as merely being a smoke screen for your personal preference. With only knowing what was in the letter, it reads (to me) like you are as bothered, if not more, about the signal and status of where you sit as by any real workplace problems. Leaving this out will help you be heard without your message being lost.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      This is interesting to me, because I feel like asking to see the space before accepting an offer would come across as high-maintentence if you DIDN’T explain why. But a few of you have said this now, so maybe I’m just not picturing correctly how it would sound.

      Anyone want to give me an example of how you’d say it? I just can’t picture it not sound prima donna-ish!

      1. Jamie

        I would do it very casually…if an acceptable offer was made and the OP would accept and the only deal breaker would be the office then as you’re going over the routine stuff (talking about parking, where the coffee machine is, hours, etc.) just say that you’d love to see where you’ll be working.

        Just because you are excited to start the new job and want to see – I wouldn’t tip my hand that I was evaluating to see if I was going to back out. I would do it before paperwork so you aren’t wasting anyone’s time.

        I really have never seen the set up she’s describing in her letter, so I think a closet sized office is pretty rare. If it’s a matter of just the claustrophobia issue I think the odds of her running into another situation like that are so slim that it isn’t worth the awkwardness which could ensue by making it a deal breaker.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Okay, I can see that. And actually another way of doing it would be to find a way to orchestrate having the final conversation about the offer in person, and then casually ask if you could see where you’d be working (which would make sense since you were already on the premises).

          Although honestly, I’d still probably do it the way I suggested in my post. But I tend to just be very up-front about this sort of thing, and I really do believe you can get away with asking all kinds of things if you’re self-depracating about it.

        2. Liz in a library

          I’ve seen these kind of set ups only in higher ed. Thankfully, my own office is practically palatial in comparison, but I have colleagues in rooms barely large enough to hold a desk. The English department at my alma mater also had notoriously small offices – many people had small desks crammed in, back to the door, that spanned the entire width of the room. You could easily sit at the desk and touch all four walls.

      2. Diane

        Where you spend 8+ hour a day matters, especially if you have a desk job. It’s perfectly reasonable to see your workspace and meet your coworkers before accepting an offer–and you shouldn’t have to justify it because of claustrophobia or anything else.

        In fact, an employer who doesn’t feel these are important factors probably hasn’t thought through other important elements of the job.

        1. Anonymous

          Diane – 100% agreed. I’m actually surprised no one else has made this point! Workspace is very important for a desk job employee, especially if you had a private office at your previous job or if you’re at a certain level in your career. Going from a private office at one job to a cubicle in another is a flat-out downgrade that you should be aware of prior to accepting an offer so you can make sure that the pay/benefits/etc. make the downgrade worth your while. It’s a package deal, one thing affects another. I just don’t understand how having a standard for where you spend 50+ hours a week is considered prima donna-ish. If anything, I consider it being assertive and a positive signal to the potentially new employer that you are a thorough professional who takes all matters into consideration when making an important, long-term decision.

    2. KellyK

      I can touch both corners of my desk with a little bit of a stretch. I’m 5’6ish.

      As far as confidential conversations, I think it depends on whether you have access to the conference room when you need it. If you’re continually picking up and moving to the conference room for a 5-minute confidential conversation, or if you’re rescheduling conversations because the room is occupied, it would make a lot of sense for you to have an office with a door.

        1. Jamie

          I can’t believe I’m goofy enough to have gotten a tape measure…

          Touching one end of my desk I’m 3′ 6″from the other side of my desk facing forward. Going sideways I’m about 1.5 feet short. I’m 5′ 7″ with a normal arm span…I just have a weird desk.

  5. GeekChic

    OP #2: At my current place of work, the only people who have offices (or even cubes with doors) are supervisors. This makes sense to me as they consistently need a place to have private conversations – for performance reviews if nothing else.

    You sound like you have a similar need for privacy as a compliance officer and that would be what I would focus on. The size of your work space compared to others is not really relevant (to the business at least).

  6. Anonymous

    I read once that everyone at Intel has cubes. Even Andy Grove had a cube, the same size as everyone else’s. You are encouraged to take one of the many conference rooms should you need privacy or should you need a longer than a minute or so conversation. If Intel’s CEO can manage with a cubicle, and presumably take a few phone calls in it, I would think any of us could.

    From IndustryWeek:
    Asked whether [his office cubicle is] adequate for his needs as CEO, Grove replies, “Absolutely. . . . I need a conference room for private meetings, but most of the time I can read, work at my computer, or have phone conversations very nicely in my office — even if Pam [Pam Pollace, Intel’s then-vice president for worldwide press relations, Grove’s office cubicle neighbor] often does overhear me.”

    1. Tex

      I’ve been to the Intel offices in Hillsboro. Talk about world’s smallest cubes (at least for the engineering dept, the heart and soul of the company). Each cube was half the size of the ‘normal cubes’ I have encountered, meaning +/- 3′ wide and 5′ deep. The desk area started at the entrance, went down 5′ along one all and then came across the back 3′ width. There was no room to turn 180 degrees in your chair let alone have a guest chair. If you were working at the long 5′ desk area, your chair back was up against the wall on the opposite side. And you could not slide down the whole length of the cube because there were filing cabinets at the bottom. People were slotted in like computer chips:)

      The president of Intel may work in a cube, but not all cubes are made equal….

  7. Shamrocky

    This conversation brings up an interesting, related-but-not-purely-relevant point for me. I am a lawyer who has frequently held non-legal jobs, usually in program administration. Outside of legal work, it seems like the culture is leaning more and more toward open work spaces and away from individual offices. As a result, I’ve definitely had cubes that were bigger, nicer and more nicely appointed than some offices I’ve had! But one thing I have notices is that non-legal folks frequently resent the extent to which lawyers insist on offices with doors. Here’s why: lawyer-client confidentiality relies in very strong part on the idea that information is only privileged if the communication is between the lawyer and client ONLY. If a third party shares in the information, boom, there goes privilege. I don’t know if something similar applies to compliance work or not, but if so, it would certainly boost your request for an office with a door that closes.

    1. Jamie

      I don’t think anyone would go to a lawyer if they couldn’t close the door…definite must there.

      Also, I would argue, HR in most companies should because they do deal with confidential things like health issues, write ups, payroll, etc.

      1. GeekChic

        HR where I work has a conference room for confidential discussions (that’s also where the files are stored). Otherwise, everyone is in a cube.

    2. Long Time Admin

      The “offices” in our company have walls that only go up to the acoustical tile ceiling, not all the way to the hard ceiling, so there is no real privacy there. For a truly confidential talk, people would have to go out to their cars.

  8. JT

    Where I work (nonprofit organization with 35 people in main office) everyone has an identical cube. From the CEO on down. Well, almost everyone – we have a slightly smaller set of desks for interns and visitors, plus the receptionist sits behind a reception desk. We have small conference rooms for confidential or loud discussions (the smallest fits two people maximum). Each cube has space for guest chair except a couple that are near columns. This works really well for us. The cubes are good-sized.

  9. Kelly O

    See, I guess I don’t see what’s wrong with mentioning you have issues with claustrophobia, and I think it says more about the person who would make fun of someone or joke about them behind their back than it does the person with the problem. (And no, I don’t have it, but I have been jammed in makeshift office spaces with other people in the past and know how uncomfortable it can be to work that way.)

    Like AAM, I think it could very easily make you look high maintenance if you want to see where you work before you start. Now, I have worked in some places where I was shown where I’d be before I started – that’s a whole other thing entirely. But I can’t imagine asking to see where I’d be before I started without explaining why.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I agree (obviously). I really don’t think claustrophobia has a stigma, in fact. Lots of people use the term to refer to “uncomfortable in small spaces” without it signaling a life-altering clinical condition (not that the latter should have a stigma either, of course).

      1. Joey

        Saying you’re claustrophobic would come off a little high maintenance to me. I’d wonder what other phobia you’re going to tell me about next. I agree without the others. Asking to see where you’d be working is no big deal as long as you don’t make it a big deal.

  10. fposte

    #1, can you clarify what knowing about the situation in advance would mean? Would you actually reject an offer if it was in a problematic space, for instance, or would it help you adjust if you knew in advance it was tight? I don’t see anything wrong with a “Where would I be working–in the first-floor annex with the rest of the Communications team?” type of question, but I’m wondering where you’d be taking this if the answer was “No, we’ve only got an opening in the basement.” Unless you’re coming in at a really high level, you’re not likely to have much flexibility in your basic crammed academic building, and I think it would actually be a bad start to try to renegotiate office space as a new hire. I guess what I’m saying is that if you’d take the job anyway, I don’t think the answer gets you much, so it might not be worth expending energy on asking it.

    (Random tale: I knew an employee who had to move from an office he liked to another one, not because of anything he’d done, but because the new space was requested by somebody too junior to be “entitled” to it, so they blocked the junior by moving my acquaintance.)

  11. Dawn

    To the person who is the new “compliance department,” you need an office. Some of the things you’ll be working on and/or discussing are confidential. It’s possible to do compliance and not have an office; however, it becomes a pain in the neck when you need to talk about a sticky situation and the only conference room is occupied.

  12. Anonymous

    I’m wondering if I’ve lost my head, but I wouldn’t ever accept an offer without seeing the building I’d be working in. And I don’t have clausterphobia.

    I wouldn’t mention the clausterphobia…I’d just position it as “I’m so excited for the offer and feel like I have a really solid grasp of what I’d be doing and who I would be working with. Is there any chance I can swing by to see the actual space?”

  13. Jamie

    I used to swing by a place before the phone interview – to see the parking.

    One of my three non-negotiables is off street parking.

    One person’s deal-breaker is another person’s non-issue.

  14. anon-2

    The working environment might be important — if you’re used to working in an office with a door, going into a “boiler room”, or what I used to call a “galley slave ship” — you’re in a classroom like environment with a boss sitting up on a podium — it might impact your productivity and you might not last long working that way.

    Also – look at the environment – if you’re going to be working in a computer-based environment and they have clunky CRTs and old Windows ME workstations, and older obsolete telephones, that gives you an idea of what the company’s attitude is toward the working environment. Are they going to put you next to the bathroom where you hear 500 flushes a day?

    Do they have speakerphones in open areas? That can be annoying- don’t laugh, I had a manager that acquired the nickname “Mistah Speakah”. Disruptive as all he11.

    I don’t think it’s out of line to ask to see it.

  15. OP #1

    OP #1 here. Thanks everyone for the great suggestions on how to approach the subject, and word the questions!

    FPoste – A hamster size space wouldn’t cause me to reject a job offer. Ideally, I’d just like to check it out and confirm in my own that it’s a non-issue. (Most regular work environments are totally fine. But, like Liz in a Library noted, it can be a problem in higher ed.) If it was potentially awful, I’d like to see if I could head it off in advance — maybe if they had several open spots, and I could say “Oh, the cube is great, thanks” before they start hooking phones or computers. But if it’s ultimately awful with no other options, then I need to see my doctor and start meds far enough in advance to be effective. (I’d prefer not to have a new boss’s first impressions of me in the workplace be of me visibly nauseous and sweating.)

    I appreciate everybody’s takes on this. If an offer does arrive, I’ll start with the subtle “What can you tell me about the coffee machine, office layout, computer setup” approach, and see where it goes from there. Thanks!!

      1. OP #1

        “What?? You don’t provide frappuccinos and croissants?? Well, this just isn’t going to work for me. I’ll need a barista for my exclusive personal use. And a pony.”

    1. Anonymous

      Thanks for explaining. I’m a person who likes to know stuff in advance myself, and I can especially understand it if you have some prep you can do. Good luck with the job, and I hope the workspace is nice!

      1. fposte

        Whoops, that was me on another computer, sorry. And I think you should actually request a horse but let them bargain you down to a pony.

  16. Anonymous

    My former manager had his own office, and he wasn’t too fond of visitors so he only had one chair in his office! To the OP wanting extra chairs, why not just take them from somewhere or someone else who isn’t using them? You don’t need permission to do that, do you.

  17. OP#2

    This is OP#2 – Thank you responding to my message. I’m glad you broke it into the three issues, because I hadn’t consciously spelled that out to myself yet.
    First point, you are correct, I don’t think everyone realizes that we can step into the nearby conference room. I’m in a central location, just off a main crossroad and by the kitchenette, so there’s lots of traffic, intersection discussions and the likelihood of being overheard in my office. I will be doing a company-wide training shortly – I think I’ll mention the possibility of using the conference room for confidential conversations when necessary, and bring up the lack of privacy with my boss when it works out. There are places I could move to that would be a little less public, if he agrees.

    Second point, I have “borrowed” a desk chair from an empty nearby office, but there’s not really room in my office for it to stay there.

    Finally, you said “…I’d be concerned that you were relying on your office space to get the respect you need to do your job” which is exactly why I was concerned about bringing this up. (My boss’s perception of me is more important to me than that of my coworkers – and I’ve seen some of them change attitude after interactions and discussions with me.) I certainly have the amount of space I require, and I’m not unhappy with it. So I’ll be concentrating on obtaining the privacy I need when I need it, and if it becomes a greater or more frequent issue, I’ll bring it back up with my boss.

  18. Vicki Brown

    I joined one company as a “senior” technical writer in a documentation team. My office (it had a door; they all did) was pie-slice sapped. It was 7-ft wide at the door and literally tapered to a point at the end opposite the door.

    I had facilities remove the work surface (along the right-angle wall) and I brought in a free-standing desk, 5-feet wide, which I set just inside the door.

    That “office” did not give me warm & fuzzy feelings about how my job was thought of. Especially when a new-out-of-College hire (different manager) got an 8×10 space.

  19. Blinx

    I would never accept a position where I hadn’t seen the workspace first, since it is where you spend most of your waking hours. I had one interview in an historic building, in their conference room. At the end of the interview I asked to see the working area. I was majorly surprised and pleased to find out that I would have had an office with a window overlooking an atrium! In this instance, it was much more than I would have expected and was a major perk!

    I’ve also interviewed in large corporations where my job was in a cubicle (as expected), but they took you on a tour of the facility, as there were many on-site perks (such as a coffee bar, gym, daycare, etc.). Any one of these may not sway you to accept an offer, but the fact that these facilities are provided to employees tells you something about the corporation as a whole.

  20. Jdubz

    I just received a new promotion and they want me to move to the executive level, but I am moving to a cube which is open to every one most mangers have offices. I currently have a office which has a ton of work memorabilia in it. I am 6’2, 260 pounds. I plan on going in tomorrow and asking for a office. I work out in the complex and will some times come in sweating and need to change cloths. I don’t want to stink up the common area. I also need a quite space to work. They have a couple office that are satellite office of managers who have two different offices at each end of the sight. I am going to ask my VP tomorrow and will let you know the results.

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