Better ways to approach an open plan office

Published on June 12, 2013 under Business

Cool open plan office

Last time, I went into how and why open plan office spaces can hinder creativity and productivity. I mentioned that while smaller spaces with small groups of employees can prosper, big open plans with tens to hundreds of employees can and will become a nightmare to work in.

Now I know my little spiel won’t stop the flush of workplaces ditching walls for open floors of desks. My own employer is planning on moving us all into a new open space in 2014, despite much resistance from myself and my colleagues. Rather than fight the imminent change, I’d like to open the discussion on how to make things work that benefit both labor and management.

1. Level with your employees.

Let’s cut the charade. We know the real reason why an open plan is enticing. Saving loads of money on real estate is a good reason, and you would be surprised how many employees would jump on board if they were told the truth. Can the propaganda on how open plan will make us work better and just tell us the truth.

Better yet, share in the rewards with your employees. You just slashed your real estate costs down, give everyone a raise for staying at the company as opposed to an exodus. Give a bonus if the new space and saved money leads to a big win with a client or product. Show you care.

2. Find a balance.

White Space or Idea SpaceDespite how many out there speak poorly of open plan offices, there are many good ideas that have come out of the attempts. One is the idea of a “white space” or “idea space” where employees across teams can share and discuss ideas openly without judgement.

However, when it comes to the times when one has to sit down and work alone, a big open room of desks might not be the answer. I’ve seen open plan work with smaller numbers of employees. A room or “pod” of 5-10 people? Maybe. A room of 50-100 people? Nightmare.

Do the research, talk to experts, and find what the ideal balance of private quiet space versus open collaborative space. Create a workplace where all types of work can be done effectively.

3. Build a culture.

It’s not just a about changing the placement of the desks, workspace, and company. It’s also about building a real culture, and that’s not easy. If your company is loaded with red tape, distance between employees and management, politics, lack of growth, etc. If there is no clear vision, and idea-making/decision-making is only in the hands of the top brass, then don’t expect an open plan office to magically change everything. You might want to Google up “build a culture”, reassess how your company operates, and make adjustments accordingly.

4. Get your employees involved in the planning.

One qualm I had with my employer’s decision to go open plan is that they didn’t get any of us involved. Regardless if you work for a creative department or not, people have ideas, and getting your workers involved in planning and organizing a new office space can do much more to boost morale and make the transition exciting, as well as build loyalty.

5. Lead by example.

We’ve all seen it. The employees get a desk in a big open space while the management all retain private offices. How can you expect your employees to embrace your “open” and “collaborative” environment if you’re not willing to take part in it? Do the duty and give up your office for a desk, even if you’re given a bigger amount of area to work in. Show you’re willing to stand by your decision and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

6. Embrace flexible and remote working.

Working offsiteMany “experts” will say the office of the future is one without walls. I agree, but not in the way many in management might believe it. It shouldn’t be about removing office walls or cubicle walls, but more eliminating the idea of a normal workspace.

You want a collaborative space, but employees want quiet “alone time” to do the work? Hand your employees a laptop and let them work where they want WITHIN REASON. My employer is actually going to try this, and I’m all in support. So when it’s time for me to buckle down and design, or write code, I can go to my desk, or another part of the office, or even outside. I’m sure even my direct manager would let me work from home if it was a day where I’m not in meetings.

We’ve seen some like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer try to abolish flexible and remote working, but I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss it. Again, having a structure is how you’ll make it work. You give your employees the freedom to work in their own comfort, but also require them to collaborate, make face time, and be in the office for certain periods of time. Sometimes you just don’t need some people in the space, and it’s better for them to have that day or two to just get the labor done without interruption. If you as a manager can’t handle not seeing a “sea of heads”, then maybe you need to reassess how you view your role as a manager.

7. Be open to change and adjustment.

So you decided to go open plan, leveled with your employees, lead by example, and even got them involved in the planning. Now it’s a year later, are you assessing what worked and what didn’t?

Whenever you make a big change to your office space and especially your workplace culture, you should “write it in pencil”. What that means is you should leave it open to be changed. If you see everyone spent the year in headphones and barely talking to one another, then rethink what could improve that. If you saw 1/3 of your staff leave for other companies and you’re having trouble recruiting talent, then look into what could improve that.

Maybe you might have to build walls, or give more perks, or change up management. Whatever the case, having a flexible open plan is how you can quickly adapt and adjust so you’re not watching your company fall into a hole you might not be able to climb out of.

8. Accept that you’ll have some sour grapes.

Let’s be honest. No matter how much, planning, transparency, and collaboration you try to put forward on your employees with a new open plan, there will be turnover. You’ll see people, even the talented ones you really want to keep, up and leave for other companies.

Maybe they’ll get private offices in that company, or they want to go freelance and work from home, or they simply are getting way more money to sit in an open space. Who knows? You should stand ready for the turnover, and only rethink strategy when you see the exodus reach a level that’s clearly hurting your bottom line. 20 people out of 500 leave? Let them go. 175 out of 500? Step back and assess the damage, especially if it seems you can’t replace those people easily.

Have you implemented any policies to make an open plan office work? What are they?

Tags: open plan office, planning, culture, work, collaboration

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