The pros and cons of open office design trends have been hotly debated in recent years, leaving leaders across Corporate America questioning the best way to manage their workers and encourage cohesive unity within their organizations. However noble the intention behind open-office design is, the way corporate leaders execute day-to-day business within that space is just as important as the physical space in which they lead.

The Impact of the Open Office on People

Love it or hate it, many people working in open offices have opinions.

While some say the access to team members helps with projects and collaboration and keeps them informed on a daily basis, just as many say the noise and fishbowl feel of being so visible are distracting, intimidating, and downright uncomfortable.

As companies become more agile with their workforce's environment, some structure is absolutely necessary to keep employees happy, productive, and satisfied with their jobs.

Activity-based working features in the open office design are just the first step in leadership's ability to provide the right working space for their employees. Enclosed cubbies for privacy to make phone calls or get away from the noise, comfortable lounges and big tables for collaboration, and quiet areas to promote focus and concentration are all critical elements that make an open office design work as intended.

But good management of the business goes beyond that.

A Shift in Behavior

Much of the productivity within an open office hinges upon the comfort of employees.

If someone isn't comfortable working at a desk butted up right next to someone else's, no amount of space-saving design is will help them work better. They'll spend valuable brain power on making their environment as comfortable as possible, perhaps with strategic stacks of books or files that give them the illusion of privacy in an otherwise chaotic room.

Management has to be aware of this, and one of the solutions is a shift in company culture surrounding flexible work arrangements. Even Jim Belosic, co-founder and CEO of ShortStack, admits to working at home when faced with a tough deadline or demanding work requiring 100% focus. And what's okay for management must be okay for the rest of the workforce, and should be supported fully by the company's leaders.

Sharp consideration for the amount of trust workers feel both to and from management should also be taken into account.

With the office open for all eyes to see, people can feel spied on if they take a few minutes to catch up on the morning's news, make a personal phone call, or answer a quick text from a family member.

What makes this fishbowl feeling worse is those within the office who feel it's their duty to report on the activities of their coworkers in order to gain favor with management.

By taking into consideration these factors and implementing policies that protect workers from the development of a toxic company culture, your company's leaders can stop quite a few problems before they start. Model a flexible, accommodating company culture from the top down, so everyone understands and feels trusted and appreciated, enticing them to give their very best effort every day.

Put it in Writing

Not long ago, a report was released about the subtle sexism of the open office, setting the corporate world ablaze.

Many women came forward detailing examples of how uncomfortable they'd become in the open office environment, because of a lack of privacy to make phone calls to set up doctor's appointments, scrutiny over their appearance that wasn't also pointed at the men in their office, and the passive sexism of being stared at. Some told of being reprimanded for interrupting their supervisors with questions when the men weren't given the same dressing down, and having no place to go for privacy in the event she became self-conscious or uncomfortable due to overt staring from male colleagues.

Without an office layout delineating their hierarchy within the company, many women in the report began relying on their clothing and appearance to signal to others their importance within the corporate structure, inadvertently feeding into the idea that they were there to be judged for their appearance and not their work ethic and accomplishments.

These environmental stressors undermine the very productivity corporate leaders are trying to achieve with an open office design because they cost employees emotional capital.

Such behavior requires more than a single page about appropriate employee conduct in the company handbook.

It is essential that flexible working policies be adopted as an expected way to work rather than a privilege to allow employees a different environment in which to work should they need it.

There is no better way to ensure all the policies are adhered to than by having fully documented, training-based programs in place to meet the needs of every employee. Consider inclusion and diversity training of all employees as part of your onboarding process. Be very specific about what constitutes sexual harassment within your organization, and handle employee complaints seriously and swiftly. Fostering an environment of positivity and productivity takes work, and issues can't be ignored.

Benefits of Leading in the Trenches

But let's not forget how valuable open offices can be, particularly when supervisors and executives are not separated into glass-walled offices that scream, "Keep Out."

Leadership is seen as more approachable when you're easily accessible to those whom you oversee, and oftentimes, time can be saved thanks to simple proximity.

A leader sitting nearby will hear more of what team members are discussing, both good and bad, and because of that, can interact with the team to offer guidance and direction. By participating in the daily interactions the open office is designed to instigate, you're engaging in true collaboration. You're more aware of what's currently happening as well as what's coming down the pipe.

The familiarity between you and your team and the opportunity to interact more can deepen interoffice relationships, as well as result in more work getting done.

Another benefit is hearing personal stories told by your employees and team members. This is an opportunity to learn more about their lives, their desires and difficulties, and can help you become a more empathetic leader.

A bonus to that is learning organically what strengths and weaknesses your team members have, which can help you gauge what work they're most suited for and delegate accordingly.

Additionally, you can often cut out the staff meetings.

Hearing ongoing conversation means you're already in-the-know about what's happening with your department. You can save not only on frequency of meetings, but you can easily respond in real time as situations arise. This has the added benefit of showing your team you're all in this together, without spending time-wasting hours getting up to speed in a conference room. 

One thing will remain true about the corporate landscape: it is always changing.

Open offices are one of the bigger changes taking place in the last decade, and as with any disruptive shake-up, there will be growing pains. Designers are more informed now than ever about what does and doesn't work within an office environment.

By keeping informed about what you can do to improve the office environment, you're poised to lead your company into any future that may come up, and the possibilities are endless.

Published on: Nov 30, 2018