Space can only do so much!

You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m a fan of the open plan office design. (Not apologizing, just sayin’ – for what’s the point of blogging if not getting a chance to opine?) Done right, i.e.: activity-based working can both save money and foster a more collegial culture in your work space. Win/win.

But whether you agree about the potential merits of activity-based planning (or not) the intent of this 4-part blog following on from HBR’s May, 2018 article on “the impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration” was really to share some ‘prejudices’ about how to plan the right way. (More opining). Thus far we’ve expressed the importance of:

  • Collecting solid data on your current state
  • Allowing the data to inform the design
  • Giving people choices
  • Communicating – early and often; making it multi-directional and dimensional
  • Engaging vs. broadcasting so colleagues feel part of the process

This last blog addresses one more ingredient for making a successful workplace transition: enlisting the support of your managers.

As we concern ourselves with creating workplaces that promote attraction and support retention – which are not necessarily the same things, by the way, let’s remember that people are far less likely to leave a job because of a move to open plan than they are due to a bad relationship to their boss. While this is something we’ve oft-heard it bears repeating in this context, not to assuage concerns about how people will react to workplace change, but to make the point that the example managers set can make or break the success of your undertaking. And assuming that managers are on board by virtue of their position can get you into some very passive aggressive territory.

Managers are people too!  Remember the example in blog #3 about the time the Steelcase CAO took to get her people on board with activity-based planning? Managers who feel the loss of status an office may have conferred need to do more than learn to appreciate the business proposition of change. They also need to be willing to entertain and explore what benefits the new environment may offer them. Only in doing so can they set the right tone and provide a good example for others to follow.

But even managers who are ‘on board’ with change intellectually from a business and tactical perspective should also consider that in addition to helping colleagues adopt new behaviors, they as managers should consider managing differently. Some of the questions we ask (and roll play) in change workshops are

  • What message will I convey if I sit with my team vs. an executive area?
  • Will my reports feel comfortable approaching me in an open environment?
  • How will I manage confidential conversations now that I don’t have an office?
  • Will I have the same contact and control if I can’t see people in front of me?
  • How will I ensure my people know what to prioritize?
  • How will I know what they are working on?
  • How will I manage meetings now that many more will be virtual?
  • How will I retain cohesion and promote knowledge sharing within my team?
  • What new business opportunities might develop by being co-located with another team?
  • How can I build trust to foster that cross-team-collaboration?

True, suggesting that managers reflect upon – and consider changing – their management style presents as many challenges as opportunities. But, as it doesn’t look like the workplace is about to revert to a private mode anytime soon, why not make the transition a signature of your management style? To quote the late entrepreneur, motivational coach and speaker, Jim Rohn, “Your life does not get better by chance. It gets better by change.” Can we not say the same for work and the workplace?

This is the last of a 4-part series jumping off AWA’s October 4th dinner with New York real estate executives to opine on “The Impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration,” as published in The Harvard Business Review, May 2018.


Written by Fran Ferrone, Senior Consultant, Advanced Workplace Associates USA

Fran Ferrone holds a BA in Speech from The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. and a degree in Interior Design from Parsons in New York. In addition, she has experience working with senior leaders in a varitey of Fortune 500 companies in the US and abroad.

She has published numerous articles on a variety of workplace topics, including her piece on Workplace Design that featured in Entrepreneur Online. Other features include a monthly column in Real Estate Investor Magazine, CoreNet Leader, and Buildings Magazine. Currently, Fran sits on the Strategy and Portfolio Planning Committee of CoreNet Global’s New York Chapter.