7 Lessons on Managing Open Workplaces

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Recently, there has been considerable research and debate on whether open work environments improve or impede employees’ performance and productivity.

On one hand, open work environments naturally encourage collaboration, teamwork, socializing, and innovation. They allow employees to move around, create discussion, and collaborate spontaneously. They lead to more informal mentoring, problem solving, rapid information sharing, and easier communication between peers, and can even decrease misconduct.

On the other hand, most organizations that move to an open work environment face challenging management issues. Open work environments can lack private or quiet space for concentration, contain loud noise levels, lead to frequent interruptions, and decrease productivity or performance for some employees.

It’s clear that in practice open work environments can enhance a workplace and improve collaboration, but also pose issues that need to be managed. Here are some important lessons other companies and research tell us about how to effectively manage the open office work environment.

The open office is not for everyone...or every business.

There are employees whose job function, nature of work, and personality benefit from private individual space. For example, mathematical and computer science jobs tend to require long periods of heavy concentration; introverts tend to be more creative and productive in private spaces; and younger employees tend to like open workspaces more than older employees. Don't assume that open spaces work for everyone's job or situation. Consider your generational make-up, types of jobs, and business climate before making the move.

Setting creative rules can help eliminate common problems.

Gather employees together to set basic informal rules and "cube etiquette." This helps alleviate common issues of disrespect and frustration with coworkers in open office settings. These rules could address how to creatively deal with issues such as interruptions, hygiene, noise, and personal business. Have employees participate in creating a respectful work environment. Don’t set the rules for them.

Organizations need to train on soft-skills.

Open work environments prompt frequent interpersonal interactions which naturally lead to more frustration and conflict. Your organization needs to be prepared to train employees and managers on the skills they need to make the environment work. Continuously training employees on soft skills such as respect in the workplace, communication, collaboration, and conflict management is imperative to keeping these interactions positive and constructive.

Listen and keep an open dialogue.

Research shows that employees generally won't come forward with complaints about their work environment or address them directly with their coworkers. Keep an open dialogue with employees – especially during the months of the transition – on what’s working and not working. It shows that you care about their response to the change.

Balance individual and group needs - be flexible.

Effective open work environments seem to provide enough accessible individual (hoteling or individual spaces) and cafe-like or conference room spaces - balancing the needs of private individual work time and space for collaboration, meetings, and open communication. They also give employees the freedom to work how and where they want and still allow employees the ability to individualize their space.

Natural separation and groupings should be utilized.

Put "like-groups" together within a larger space. Employees who use the phone frequently could be grouped in a space, while employees who don't could be grouped in a different space. Another best practice is to place employees in the same department and/or highly interdependent departments within the same work area.

Small details need to support productivity.

Light, color, amount of space, and placement of chairs or desks may seem like unimportant details, but they can make a big difference in comfort and productivity. Light levels can cause headaches or lack of focus; color can energize (or de-energize) your staff; if employees don't have sufficient space to work, they can be uncomfortable. All these things affect output and need to be managed.

Break down impediments to productivity and performance.

If you find that employees aren't getting much done, having to work at home to finish projects, that their performance is suffering, that their best ideas are coming from outside of the workplace, or that there are frequent conflicts between coworkers, your open work environment may be creating problems. Enabling performance and creating an environment where work can get done productively should be your number one goal.

Pilot a layout to test an open work environment.

Try an open layout with one department or a particular location before rolling it out to your entire organization. Observe how employees react to the new work environment.

Open work environments can be highly beneficial to an increasingly team-oriented workforce, but they need to be managed in ways that make employees feel comfortable and productive in their spaces, limit negative effects on performance, and support a respectful and collaborative work atmosphere.   

Additional Resources

Soft-Skills Training for Employees & Managers
ERC offers numerous soft-skills training for both employees and managers on a broad range of topics including communication, conflict resolution, generational differences, team-building, respect in the workplace, internal customer service, dealing with difficult people, and more. All of our courses can be customized to meet your organization’s needs. For more information, please contact ckutsko@yourerc.com

Office Products & Services ERC’s network of Preferred Partners provides discounts on a range of products and services to help your organization enhance its workplace experience for employees from technology solutions to food and catering services to office supplies.