Why Collaboration Is Failing In Your Open Office

Accepted workplace noise level norms can have a tremendous impact on collaboration. It’s important that this is established with the team, enabled by the design of the space, and communicated to those going to inhabit the space. Confidential Client, Denver. Photography © James Florio.

Accepted workplace noise level norms can have a tremendous impact on collaboration. It’s important that this is established with the team, enabled by the design of the space, and communicated to those going to inhabit the space. Confidential Client, Denver. Photography © James Florio.

By Mary Lee Duff, LEED AP,  IIDA | Senior Director of Strategy & Grzegorz Kosmal AIA, LEED AP BD+C |  Design Director

Collaborative spaces have come under fire as of late, and more often than not, the fingers are being pointed at open offices. This recent outcry has led some to doubt ifcollaboration itself isn’t to blame.

And, in truth, there are certainly shortcomings in how workplaces are being made to be more collaborative. Unfortunately, many of the loudest voices in this argument against the open office often rely upon minuscule sample sizes or data that doesn’t pertain to the typical workplace at all. One can hardly blame them—more often than not, those outside the industry are forced to compare apples to oranges, having to use data that compares workspaces with vastly different workplace strategies, organizational cultures, change management processes, or are even in different industries—all within a reasonable sample size.

But, it would be folly to disregard the simple truth—that a notable number of individuals are having negative experiences within the open office, and finding it hard to collaborate. There may be some instances where the physical design of the space is to blame. But, considering that open offices have been successfully utilized for decades, what other factors could make efforts to establish a collaborative culture fail within an open office? We posed this question to IA’s Senior Director of Strategy Mary Lee Duff, LEED AP, IIDA and IA Design Director Grzegorz Kosmal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C , who lent us some industry insights that help to answer this question.

Change Management Didn’t Occur

Change management is especially important when employees are presented with novel workspaces or asked to transition to a different style of desking. Big Fish Headquarters, Seattle. Photography © Sherman Takat

Change management is especially important when employees are presented with novel workspaces or asked to transition to a different style of desking. Big Fish Headquarters, Seattle. Photography © Sherman Takat

While a new workplace doesn’t always entail sweeping changes, it does often involve new categories of space. Director of Strategy Mary Lee Duff would argue that, with new spaces, come new processes for utilizing those areas. “Especially when transitioning to a free address system, a lack of communication and change management can cause chaos in a new environment.” Unfortunately, all too often new spaces are introduced without giving teams the information for making the best use of them. “Because people aren’t used to using these new spaces, they either won’t use or will do so incorrectly, and in that situation, they tend to revert back to how they worked before” she adds. Simply put, when employees engage in closed office behaviors in an open office environment, most of the benefits of either system of work are lost, and without proper change management, the transition to the open office isn’t likely to go smoothly.

A Lack of Executive Buy-In

Sometimes change does genuinely start from the top, and the transition to an open space is undoubtedly one of those situations. The cornerstones of an open office set up are mobility and choice, and when work isn’t conducted in a way that supports this, the flexibility of an open office can be severely hindered.

 “It’s important that executives are a part of demonstrating collaboration in an open and transparent fashion,” remarks Duff. “When they don’t move about their employee spaces it’s noticed—it’s not ideal when people have to come to them and feel generally uninvited.”  Executives and mid-level management are most responsible for enforcing changes in how work is done, and leading by example. “It is crucial to have both executive and mid-level management buying in to the design process so they can understand where these solutions are coming from, and therefore can champion them” adds Kosmal. “A lot of times, senior management has been influenced by a completely different set of parameters regarding how to conduct work and relate to their coworkers. It can be difficult to adjust when you’ve spent your career working towards that corner office, and suddenly there’s no corner office.”

It’s important that executive and mid-level management work styles are represented in the early strategy sessions. “Some managers may have a problem with not seeing people that they’re interacting with” says Grzegorz. “Right now the agile process is quick sprints, giving a lot of autonomy to the teams, quick feedback loops—basically, teams are autonomous, and a lot of management may involve sitting at your desk supervising teams from a distance, rather than the physical presence typical of management styles in years past.” He goes on to describe how results-oriented management, rather than presence-oriented management is generally more effective in the modern workplace, and that if this isn’t addressed early on in the project, it’s unrealistic to expect either the workplace or the management teams within it to work flexibly.

Your Workplace Wasn’t Designed in Such a Way That it Reflects How People Work Inside It

Space does not support open collaboration because it is all open; people are sensitive to disruption. A proper open plan should enable teams to find spaces where they can step away and collaborate on an ad hoc basis, or easily find moments of solitude when that makes sense.