If you work in a traditional office, you’ve probably experienced the frustration of wandering through a maze of cubicles like a lab mouse in search of cheese, trying to find the one co-worker who can answer your question. It only gets more irritating when you discover that said co-worker has abandoned their own post in search of someone else to answer their question. With a heavy sigh, you trudge back to your seat, punch out your query in an email, and watch time tick away as you wait for a reply.
The Age of the Open Workspace
Despite our progression towards an increasingly virtual world, face-to-face communication is still extremely valuable. Relying predominantly on emails for collaboration results in misunderstandings and really, REALLY slow feedback loops.
In open workspaces, teams use open seating to facilitate communication, shorten feedback time, and speed up ideation. It is often the hardest practice to implement when making internal process improvements, but the resulting transparency and increased communication make it incredibly impactful.
Okay, bad example.
Assess Your Space
If you are considering transitioning to a more open environment, you’ll want to put some thought into what isn’t working now and what you anticipate a more open office space would help your team achieve. The following are some questions to help determine how your current workspace configuration affects collaboration and to get your juices flowing around how to turn your space into a productivity tool.
To get started, ask yourself:
- How quickly can you currently get questions answered or receive feedback on requests from your peers? How about your management? Senior leadership?
- How many emails back and forth does it take to resolve an easy issue? How about a complex one?
- How often do you find yourself picking up the phone or typing out an email to speak to someone down the hall or across the room?
- Do most of the steps on your Fitbit come from wandering around the office looking for team members?
- How many meetings are scheduled simply so you can get all the right people in a room together to work on a single issue?
- Do you see pictures of offices like Google or QuickenLoans and think “God, I wish I could work in a place like that?”
- Do your teams keep stashes of vitamin D in their desk drawers because the only time they are exposed to natural light is during their drive to work?
Open Space Guidelines
Depending on your answers to the above, you may be wondering what a more collaborative, optimized environment would look like. Below are some guidelines to creating a space that breaks down the barriers to communication and teamwork. Note: These are generally considered good practices, but they are not the “rules.” The team (not the boss or HR) should be allowed to work together to create an environment that best supports their needs and goals.
- There are no assigned seats or other personal spaces (ie. cubicles)
- Breakout rooms are available for meetings, privacy, or periods of quiet-time, but should not to be turned into personal offices.
- White boards, cork boards or flip charts are used to provide a dynamic workspace for collaboration.
- Team members use open seating to facilitate pairing on tasks and projects
- Leadership sits in the open space with the team (no ivory towers)
- Locate the team space in a highly visible area, be proud to showcase the space to visitors
- Team members have a designated area to store personal belongings – this prevents “claiming” of a seat or area
- Furniture is movable without permission and the team has ability to reshape the space as needed
- Allow picture skins or stickers on laptops (family, dogs, sports, etc)
- Allow teams to be creative and introduce fun into the workspace
- Some noise indicates collaboration and communication, silence is troubling
- The Parent’s Ear Rule: bad sounds are complete silence or kicking & screaming
- “Hey Team” cooperation when roadblocks are discovered – Everyone swarms to help out
- Teams sit side-by-side and/or facing each other, not with backs to one another
- Requires that facilities, HR, and leadership understand the goals, and are engaged with the team(s)
- All rules deserve team discussion
A Note On Introverts and Open Spaces
One of the biggest misconceptions about open workspaces is that they do not accommodate the preferences of introverted team members. The fact is everyone, even extroverts, sometimes need to work independently and in quiet so that they can focus. For many, the idea of working in an open environment with lots of “chatter” can be a rather unpleasant concept. The good news is that properly configured open workspaces, combined with the right team norms, can actually support the needs of introverts even more than traditional offices currently do.
First, break-out rooms or designated quiet areas allow team members to retreat to a private place to focus on a particular task without disruption, then return to the group for collaboration when they are ready. Second, having no assigned seating means that people are free to move away from distracting activities or noise rather than be forced to deal with it all day. Finally, the freedom to choose where one works conveys a stronger sense of empowerment and trust from company leadership. It’s as if you are saying to your employees, “I see you as adults, not schoolchildren. This is your space and I trust that you know best how to get things done.”
How It All Fits
While the goal of creating a more productive, collaborative environment is certainly worth pursuing, it should be noted that simply taking kicking down your cubicle walls while declaring “open workspace!!” will not do the trick. It will, however, get you some frightened looks from your employees and a rather stern talking-to from HR.
Pictured: Not the answer.
The implementation of an open workspace is not a solution in itself. Rather, it is a critical step in a larger movement towards a more optimized operation. Some would even argue that the switch to an open workspace is really just a byproduct of adopting more collaborative, transparent practices – that it naturally emerges as processes become more streamlined. It is therefore critical to define what your goals are for your open workspace and to consider what operational changes will need to take place in order to ensure the transition is successful.
If you are considering optimizing your office space and processes, a good place to start is by taking a quick assessment of your current situation with this one-minute quiz. The results will give you a good idea of how adaptable your organization is today and provide steps you can take to make incremental improvements.