From Desks to Diversity: Maximizing the Potential of Open Space Workplaces

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If your employees are sitting in an open-space office, wearing noise-canceling headphones, you are doing something very wrong.

Open-space offices are not new. The initial idea was first documented in the 1950’s in Germany by two consultants, who realized the importance of movement and communication in the organization. Since then, open workspaces have evolved significantly, moving away from individual partitions and towards larger, collaborative spaces with designated areas for teamwork, personal conversations, meetings, and relaxation. These changes reflect a desire to create work environments that cater to the diverse needs of modern knowledge workers. With substantial investments in office design, businesses hope to foster a culture of idea-sharing and spontaneity, accelerating decision-making and ultimately improving both the employee experience and overall work quality.

But open space comes at a price.

Even the most focused among us can struggle working in them, due to the increased level of noise and distractions that can hamper productivity. Moreover, these spaces can compromise our privacy and limit our ability to have sensitive conversations or work with confidential information. For managers, the shift away from traditional corner offices provides an additional challenge, leading them to spend too much time in conference rooms rather than engaging with employees and shaping the culture of the workplace.

To avoid these pitfalls, you must recognize that your open workspace is not simply desks without doors. It represents a fundamental shift in the way you work and collaboration. Only when we focus on the resulting culture of collaboration and communication and provide employees with the tools and resources they need to thrive in this new environment, will the open workspace live up to it’s potential as an engine of innovation and productivity.

In a post-COVID world, people often come into the office to interact with others. However, if they are wearing noise-cancelling headphones while sitting at their desk, as depicted in the article’s opening image, it sends a signal that they are not available for interruptions and essentially creates virtual “walls.” This can prevent them from fully experiencing the benefits of the office as a destination, and it can also limit the organization’s potential.

To make the most of open workspaces, we need to strike a balance between working independently and collaborating effectively with others.

From Noise-Cancelling Headphones to Spaces for Creativity

For employees to thrive in their work environment, they need to feel connected and proud of the space they work in. According to research published in HBR, when managers effectively communicate how the new environment will help achieve organizational goals, employees better understand how to utilize it. Studies show that when employees perceive the space as designed to produce creativity, they collaborate more, are more open to informal meetings, and communicate better. Conversely, when the reasons for the transition are not clearly communicated, employees may perceive it as a cost-saving measure and express dissatisfaction and resistance. Therefore, clear communication of purpose and vision is essential for employee connection and productivity.

An important part of this vision has to do with the ability to move around and adapt the space to changing needs throughout the day. In traditional offices with individual desks and doors, employees tend to work from the same spot, limiting their interactions with colleagues to formal meetings and corridor conversations. However, in open offices, the whole idea is to encourage unplanned encounters and collaboration with colleagues outside of one’s immediate team or regular meetings. This helps to enrich both the work and the employee’s career by expanding their network and identifying new opportunities.

As a result, one of the significant changes when moving to open space offices is the realization we get to choose where best to conduct our work, hold our meetings, have conversation. We should be moving between various areas of the office, such as a desk, a comfort zone, a phone booth, or a conference room, depending on the task at hand. It is essential to recognize that different people have different concentration and privacy needs. And even for a single individual these change throughout the day. In the post Covid era, if you’re coming into the office, you should make sure you have time for collaboration and togetherness. The days of commuting to work just to sit with headphones in front of a screen are over. Instead, the modern office requires flexibility and adaptability to maximize productivity and foster a sense of community. By prioritizing collaboration and recognizing individual needs, organizations can create a more dynamic and engaging workspace for their employees.

In today’s modern office, the importance of movement cannot be overstated. It not only enhances productivity but also shapes a transparent, inclusive, and collaborative organizational culture. Encouraging movement within the workspace allows employees to choose where they work best at any given moment. By providing this level of freedom, employees are empowered to take ownership of their workspace, which in turn leads to increased engagement and connectedness.

It is crucial for organizations not to define who sits where down to the individual level, as this can stifle movement and limit collaboration. Instead, allow employees to choose their preferred location and encourage them to change it throughout the day. If someone needs a quiet environment to concentrate, direct them to quiet zones or rooms designated for such work. If they need fresh air, show them they can work from the balcony.

This applies not only to individuals but also to groups. As an organization, we benefit from a sense of community and increased collaboration and information flow. Therefore it is important to proactively create opportunities for people to work together on projects and tasks, beyond the boundaries of the operational teams and encourage cross-functional collaborations which require them to get up from their desks and work in different areas of the space, including in other floors with members of other teams.

Managers can see beyond Zoom

This is even more true for managers.

As a manager, it is essential to lead by example when it comes to working in an open space. Shutting oneself in an office or conference room sends a message that the concept of Open Space is just physical and not substantial. On the other hand, actively working and moving within the open space office can help employees adopt the new way of working.

Furthermore, working in an open space develops the necessary skills for managing in the post Covid era where people are not constantly together in the same place. Managers must learn to separate tasks that require concentration from those that require interaction and communication with others, even if they don’t intend to work remotely. This knowledge helps managers assist employees in getting the most out of coming to the office.

But perhaps the most critical reason for managers to leave their offices and work in the open space is to see things that do not pass through Zoom. During the difficult years of social distancing, we’ve learned to appreciate the value of being in the office and experiencing the dynamics that come with it. Managers must create informal personal relationships and learn to manage different forms of communication with their team. This will not happen if you’re locked away in a meeting room all day.

Adapting to the open space is a process that requires learning, refinement, and sharing insights. Ultimately, the goal is to support employees in the new workspace and increase engagement, connectedness, collaboration, satisfaction, and productivity. After all, the very idea of working in an office in this era is movement and meetings with people, planned and unplanned. Because if all you need is to work quietly at a desk all day, you really shouldn’t bother coming into the office.

Nirit Cohen

Nirit Cohen is an expert in the future of work, bridging the gap between emerging trends and practical solutions, providing valuable insights for careers, management, organizations, and broader societal systems.

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