In recent years, many people have written about a wide range of experiences with Open Space Work Configurations. Some have experienced benefits to productivity, innovation, and collaboration, while others have witnessed a decrease in productivity, team morale, and focus. This discrepancy in outcomes has resulted in a facile argument heard in offices across the world: “Yeah an open workspace works for some companies, but it would never work here.”
“Our office is…special.”
This difference in experiences is not necessarily due to limitations in the Open Workspace Concept, but rather a misunderstanding in their application.
I have been fortunate enough to be in and around over 40 uniquely different space configurations (some less “open” than advertised) both early in my career as a member of different teams, and later as a consultant helping others create effective space. I have witnessed amazing improvements in collaboration, productivity and morale from successfully implemented open space settings, as well as the fallout from poorly implemented ones.
The successful configurations all had four common concepts working for them:
The “Open” Space –The Main Collaboration Areas
Flexibility is key here. Flexibility allows for those who use a space to own its function, and ownership contributes greatly to the initial and continued success of any space. The more flexible the space, the broader range of activities it can accommodate.
Improper planning and implementation of an open space area can create a very limiting and sometimes chaotic environment. To avoid this, an effective open space should be designed to allow teams to conduct many types of work efforts. This helps promote a layout that is practical, dynamic, versatile, profitable, and fun. Also, you don’t need to spend an inordinate amount of money to create an effective open space. Simplicity, flexibility and diversity of configuration should always be a top focus. Save your money for talent, quality tools of your trade, and comfortable chairs!
The “Other” Space – Complementary Quiet Gathering and Break-Out Spaces
The “open” space is only part of an effective space. An effective structure is a blending of open areas and private gathering spaces. Ensuring sufficient “other” space enables private conversations, group break-out sessions, or occasional quiet/focus time, all of which are necessary to maximize any team’s potential.
This structure also allows for better utilization of many existing configurations. I’ve seen effective setups where offices and cubes which were primary work spaces become breakout/quiet space and former large meeting areas become the base locations of teams to gather and work. Open space without complementary gathering/break-out space will fall short of achieving gains and may fail altogether.
Utilization of the Space – Complementary Techniques, Tools, Ceremonies, and Cadence
A great space (open and other) does not guarantee team success on its own. In many cases, the open space concept and structure is completely foreign to those expected to utilize it. Teams need to learn how to effectively leverage the newly designed space in ways that enhance productivity and innovative thinking.
Learning and leveraging complementary techniques for working and collaborating in this new environment are critical to gaining early positive momentum within the space and key to achieving sustainable success within it.
Focus on Sustainability – Proper Mindset, Team Dynamic, and Organizational Support
So you have the space, the techniques, and the talent…but will it last? Companies have started open space concepts with successful early outcomes only to watch the benefits fade over time. If given enough time to mature, the success of an open space concept will become part of the cultural dynamic of the organization. Organizational and cultural support for the approach during the early stages of learning and over a sustained period of time is necessary for long-term success.
Eventually, given time, a productive space teaches leaders and talent that it’s less about the way people work together in a specific part of the building and more about the way people work together period.