Collaborative behavior as a path to open office success

The open office concept is widely adopted, but under increased scrutiny. This piece explores why an improved collaboration strategy is needed to foster a productive and positive work environment.

According to the International Facility Management Association, 70 percent of US-based offices today have some form of an open office concept. However, this popular workplace trend is far from perfect. In fact, in some cases open offices are doing the opposite of what they were set out to accomplish: encourage relationship building, employee health and flexibility.    

Employees who work in an open office space seem to agree that the setup can be noisy and chaotic. Even the latest headlines scream the uptick in inefficiency, referring to open office plans as “disasters.”  A Harvard Business School study observed employees who switched from individual cubicles to an open office plan and found there was actually less collaboration after the switch, with 73 percent less face-to-face interaction and 75 percent more time on instant messenger.

One recent analysis portrayed it perfectly: “When dedicated desks are sacrificed in the name of ‘creative flexibility,’ when introverts are forced to attend more meetings at touchdown tables simply for the trendiness of meeting at touchdown tables, when a phone call echoes across 2,000 square feet, when desk sizes are reduced to fit more workers into one open room, you begin to have a privacy crisis on your hands.”

But privacy isn’t the only issue. With open office plans, many times companies are forcing employees to be social and work in an environment that they may neither like nor work well in.  And yet, the open office model still remains popular – and the trend doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. In fact, most organizations have recently completed or are planning office transformations featuring the open plan design.

In the flood of distain towards open concept offices, is everyone really that unhappy? And, if so, how can employees in this environment collaborate effectively and remain productive and happy?

Adapting work habits

A recent open office research study found that it is possible to adapt work habits to accommodate the open office design. The secret to open office success? Better collaborative strategies both inside and outside the office.

Businesses have an opportunity to guide collaborative behavior, which today is driven more by digital behaviors than in-person interactions, regardless of the physical office space. If businesses are strategic about encouraging widespread collaboration and meaningful relationship-building, rather than assuming that more open space means more collaboration, they can combat some of the negative effects of open offices. Here are a few ways businesses can go about building a culture of collaboration:

  • Open dialogue: Have open discussions across where all parties are encouraged to express their own opinion, allowing new perspectives and ideas to be shared. This will go a long way towards creating a culture of open communication and transparency. Employees who feel their opinions are heard and valued are more likely to express their thoughts and ideas openly.
  • Group review cycles: One downside of open offices is that people often revert back to using one-off emails or IMs because they don’t feel comfortable having conversations that everyone can hear. Instead, encourage teams to review and/or create documents as a group. Group projects can help with getting employees into a pattern of more open dialogue with a larger group of people. This allows for all experts to contribute, rather than sending email back and forth. It also mitigates version control problems.
  • Lead by example: Showcase examples of achievement where collaboration across teams and employees has positively impacted important goals. This will help to ensure that all levels of an organization see the value in participating and developing a culture of collaboration across their enterprise.
  • Ensure privacy: Ensure that there are enough private conference rooms for teams and employees to meet. Providing individualized spaces will help groups come together to work on assignments without feeling like they are disturbing their peers.

Cultivating a healthy employee dialogue

At the end of the day, companies are overemphasizing the office environment instead of the interpersonal dynamics that enable collaborative success.

On the whole, businesses are not focusing enough on how employees truly want to work together. An SAP study with Oxford Economics found only 24 percent of executives and 20 percent of employees feel their organization rates collaboration as a fundamental skill. In the trend towards open office plans, it is critical for leaders to prioritize maintaining effective communication across the business. Tools that allow employees to communicate freely whether or not they have a private cube or office will make communication flow more easily, and organizations that prioritize putting processes in place for digital communication will find that employees are far more productive and collaborative.

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