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Exec Careers: Office Geography

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A few weeks ago I moved out of my corner office.

We're a small internet company with a lot of activity and a fairly flat organizational structure, so to communicate better with my direct reports – most of whom worked in our loft-like open workspace – I decided to move out onto the floor with the troops. We turned my corner office into a conference room.

As a head honcho for more than a decade, I've been in the figurative "corner office" for about 15 years now. To really "see the troops" the past few years, I needed to get out of the office and walk around. As most execs know, that is easier said than done.

There's a real tendency to get "pinned down" by phone calls, email, and meetings, which limits the amount of time left over for actually walking around. Some execs become so desperate to elude the entrapment of the office that they literally schedule time in their calendar … for walking around. ("MBWA.")

The problem is that MBWA doesn't really work very well. Usually, employees see you coming. They minimize their personal email and click out of eBay. They throw up a big spread sheet and start pounding away on their keyboard. If you stop to talk, they ply you with platitudes and assure you that everything is going extremely well. You don't really stand much chance of gaining useful information on the business and since you're out of your element – on borrowed time, if you will – the employee doesn't stand much chance of gaining too much either.

Since I've been out on the floor working at a desk in the middle of our work space, I see and hear so much more. And because it's been a while, no one is surprised to see me in the middle of things so there doesn't seem to be much posturing. I see colleagues coming and going as they move around the office interacting with other employees or tending to their personal business. I overhear conversations and observe interactions. People stop by my desk to chat, which is much more "normal" than me leaving a corner office and stopping by theirs. If I'm in early, I see when everyone arrives. And when I stay late, I see when everyone leaves.

And because I sit out among the company all day, every day, I'm beginning to able to pick up the vibes. Are people energized or sluggish? Is the latest project running smoothly or are some people pissed off and frustrated? Are our managers leading effectively or are employees whispering behind their backs? I'm not suggesting that I now hear all and see all – not by a long stretch. But it's way better than when I was pinned down in the corner office.

A number of employees have assumed that this is temporary and that I'll be back in one of our exterior offices soon. Someone asked me the other day, "When are you moving into an office again – later this summer?" Without missing a beat, I answered, "Probably … never!"

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Erik Sorenson is CEO of Vault, the Web’s most comprehensive resource for career management and job search intelligence. Vault provides top talent with the insider information they need to make critical career decisions. An Emmy award-winning media industry veteran, Erik served as president of the MSNBC cable news channel through 2004. His experience spans radio, local and network broadcast television, cable and syndicated TV, and the Web.

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