Open offices: how to successfully implement this new way of working ?

30th Oct 2015

Tear down this wall. Is a metaphor for – and the reality of – many changes across workplace design. It remains one of the most hotly contested work topics today, especially when the change comes to your own office.

In fact approximately 70 per cent of all offices now have an open floor plan, so the shift may be unavoidable. Lifesize recently made this change in its Austin HQ, and walls weren’t the only things demolished in the process.

The 12-year-old company is in its final stages of completely re-inventing the business from primarily hardware to primarily cloud service software.  Over the past 18 months, we have had to radically change the way we develop, market and sell our products against a brand new set of competitors.  We also needed a big mindset change in sense of urgency in our new software/cloud world and a faster pace supported by more collaborative work.

To me, nothing was a more demonstrative symbol of our newly changed company than a new workspace environment. Out were the long, dark, and quiet aisles of office after office after office, even my executive staff gave up their offices. 

However, it wasn’t a completely smooth transition from introduction of the concept to build-out and move in. Here are some tips to help with the adjustment:

Support the transition

Most often, the people who struggle with the open floor plans are those who are losing an office and are faced with making an adjustment.

Some of our veteran employees considered their offices to be an important part of their compensation package, and felt like the open floor plan was a demotion. Others had created spaces that were deeply personal and reflected years of careful curation.  So, we spent a lot of time up front talking to the team about why we were making the change.  We solicited input on what was important to the team, hired a designer who was an expert in open floor plan concepts and kept the team up to date along the way with drawings and colour palettes. I actually moved out of my office months before we remodeled the entire space to show commitment to the process.

Acknowledging the research that shows open floor plans can inhibit employee productivity, we ensured there were plenty of options for independent work and quiet time in our new space.  We added 15 small huddle rooms for team collaboration which are all fitted with video communication systems to engage with our remote employees and teams.  These rooms cannot be reserved but are open for any small discussion at any time.

We also have eight one-person private phone or quiet rooms for personal conversations or quiet work, each of which has its own theme, such as the beach or a movie set.  We’ve encouraged the early sceptics to find focus and balance by making sure they still get their alone time, whether it’s a walk outside or setting up camp in a huddle room for a few hours.  We will gladly buy a set of headphones for employees who request them.

Make the space inviting and engaging

Add some thoughtful design elements such as open kitchens, comfortable seating areas, decorative lighting and wall coverings.  These additions do not cost very much but make the office space one where employees enjoy their surroundings and don’t mind spending their day in the office with their colleagues.  We also happen to have floor to ceiling windows and beautiful views.  Now everyone gets to enjoy it, rather than just the people who had offices on that side of the building.

Say hello to your neighbour

One of the benefits of an open floor plan is the sharing of information amongst employees that wouldn’t normally occur.  Employees tell me it feels much more like a community and a team than when we were all sitting alone in our offices.  Learning occurs at faster speeds and morale tends to go up.  The Finance Department, not known for their wild and crazy behaviour, now hosts a Thursday afternoon wine happy hour.  The open kitchen and long bar with seating is a gathering place for teammates from every discipline in the company.  Even the development staff, still in offices on another floor, likes to come up and hang out with the marketers and sales teams, whether for breakfast several days a week or just to walk around and stretch their legs. It is definitely a happier and more engaged team, overall.

Explore flexible working 

Once considered a reward for only the most senior employees, teleworking is increasingly common. Consider losing office walls as an opportunity to explore a more flexible work scenario.  According to Global Workplace Analytics (GWA), 79 per cent of employees would like to work from home and 36 per cent would choose a work-from-home option over a pay raise.

Even just a half day a week of working at home can give team members several solid hours of distraction-free focus, which can be enormously valuable when work requires concentration without interruptions. Plus research from National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner found that telecommuting created the same boost in happiness as a £25,000 pay raise.

Express yourself

Open work areas give people an opportunity to express themselves and connect in surprising ways.  I love seeing the different photos – whether personal or inspirational – that my colleagues have on their desks. I’ve learned lots about my colleagues and this level of connection has built intangible trust and comradery.

I’m making connections with employees that never would have happened when we were behind walls and closed office doors, and that goes a long way. I’m learning more about the in-and-outs of every role, which has allowed me to form greater personal connections and appreciate people’s contributions better. Even the sceptics who said they would never give up their office are coming around and actually enjoying the change. It’s helped me understand what makes them happy, and reminds me that when I come to work each day, I’m working for them as much as they’re working for me.

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