How can I learn about workplace environment possibilities early in an interview process?

I've experienced a problem several times now in which I do well through interviews, I ask many questions about the working environment, and when it comes time to negotiate an actual job offer, I learn that there is no flexibility in workplace attributes -- which are often dealbreakers for me.

I've tried asking HR reps, recruiters, hiring managers, and peers, at all stages of the interview process, and I find that their answers to my questions are generally inconsistent with each other and usually unrelated to the realities that surface at the negotiation stage. This has happened in a similar manner in 6 different companies over the past year, and some precursors have happened in at least another 10-15 companies where I did not go as far in the process.

By way of example, I once had a series of interviews going from an initial HR phone screen all the way to a "what can we do to get you to join our team" interview with a senior manager. In that sequence of events, different people described the workspace options ranging from "We are very flexible and we'll accomodate what you need" all the way to "It sounds like you're not a team player if you don't want to work in our current workspace." The same sort of thing happened in the other 5 places too, in various incarnations, and the companies involved ranged from 10-person start-ups to 10,000+ corporations, with no distinction between them.

The only consistent thing I've found is that everyone in a company (even two different managers of the same team who work together all the time) has a different opinion about what's possible regarding workspace customization, and at the final stage it always reduces to effectively "no customization is possible at all and it reflects badly on you that you even ask about it."

If asking very directly leads to information with such little correlation to reality, what process can I use to obtain more accurate information about workspace customization options?

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    I can't agree about the prima donna thing. In my field (programming) the ability to get into a psychological state of flow is not just a prissy nice-to-have job aspect. It is actually quite necessary. There are many political and bureaucratic reasons why companies do not create quiet or private spaces that allow programmers to get into flow -- and much evidence suggests that open plan offices end up costing companies a lot more in the long run for failing to give adequate privacy. To me that's not a prima donna issue, rather it is one of the most basic requirements for doing my job at all. – ely Nov 2 '14 at 4:21
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    In fact, I think that the antagonistic under-current attempts of management to re-appropriate workplace requests and label them derogatively with terms like "prima donna" is a fairly obvious and alarming form of gaslighting. Rather than providing my labor to such a company, and bathing my heart in extra stress hormones while I sit year upon year in an inadequate workplace, I choose instead to have self-respect, and to believe that if I am asked to be professional, then I can demand the employer likewise be professional by providing a proper space. – ely Nov 2 '14 at 4:24
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    can you please just ask the question "here is a list of my workplace demands. Am i being unrealistic?" instead of dancing around the campfire with these questions? – bharal Nov 2 '14 at 12:22
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    The prima donna never believes he's a prima donna. – Chris E Nov 2 '14 at 16:01
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    No. Companies throwing a whole bunch of workers who need to be able to concentrate in one big loud room (often with unrelated workers) under the banner of "fostering collaboration" when it's really about cutting expenditures does not mean the workers are incompetent. The managers who do it are the incompetent ones. – nobody Nov 2 '14 at 19:42

It's always possible that you're asking for too much. There aren't many businesses that will give you complete flexibility over your own schedule or environment. If this has been a sticking point for you in 15 to 20 different situations inside widely varying organizations, it's probably a sign that your requirements are outside the norm for someone in your position. Have you considered working in consulting or starting your own business?

That being said, if you want to have a better idea of the environment before the offer, it's always best to ask for an interview meeting with your potential colleagues. They're likely to be more forthcoming about the company's (and your prospective manager's) specific requirements and tolerances than anyone in HR or management.

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    I feel that evidence unequivocally shows that open plan offices are unacceptably stressful, productivity-inhibiting environments for programmers (and others) to work in. Even if other details about a job were great, I would turn it down immediately if the workplace is open-plan. How can I get a consistent answer about this early in the process, to save everyone the time of phone interviews, long on-site interviews, and finally negotiations, during which it is often revealed that the open plan part is non-negotiable (even though people have told me it is negotiable throughout the process). – ely Nov 2 '14 at 13:43
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    After working in such open-plan environments, and witnessing how it affected me and my teams (in fact, one person on the team suffered from misophonia and the open-plan office was rather perverse for him), I've made a very important personal promise to myself that I will not work in cubicle farms or open-plan workspaces. It's an important sociological value to me, like honesty, hard-work, and other core values. So I can't really ignore it (you might say I merely won't but really the issue is I can't). And please don't say "just wear headphones." – ely Nov 2 '14 at 13:46
  • Ok, that clarifies things. In that case, I would mention your requirement toward the end of the first interview, after the company's representative has an idea of what you can bring to the table. – Roger Nov 2 '14 at 13:54

It's hard to tell, what you actually want since you have been fairly cryptic about it. This feels like problem #1 to me: Be clear and specific about what your requirements are. "Flexible" could mean "choice between 23" and 24" monitor", "choice between cubicle and private office" or "working from home 3 days a week". These are all very different things. So the direct answer to your question

How can I learn about workplace environment possibilities early in an interview process?

is: Clearly state your requirements and ask direct and specific question about things that are important to you up front.

However, you probably won't like the answer. I'm guessing that you want a private office as an individual contributor. In almost all US companies that's a non-starter, and for very good reasons at that (which I won't get into here). In this case your options: tone down your requirements (maybe shared office ?), work as a freelancer so you are in charge of your own environment, or build your own company and set any rules you like.

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