Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to rethink the workplace, many embraced the trend of the open office. It’s a trend that, surprisingly, started in the 1960s — long before organizations were preparing to meet the needs of a Millennial and soon-to-come Gen Z workforce.
Everyone from tech startups to science labs embraced the boundary-free environments in hopes of boosting collaboration, fostering creativity, and making the best use of space. Unfortunately, the promise of the open office fell short for many.
What Open Offices Really Do to Collaboration
It turns out open offices didn’t exactly promote collaboration between employees. In fact, they seemed to have the opposite effect. In a study of two Fortune 500 companies, Harvard Business Review found face-to-face interactions dropped by 70 percent in an open office setting. Instead of in-person conversations, employees were using digital tools like Slack, Teams, email and Google Docs to collaborate. Employees were trying to either avoid distractions or avoid becoming the distraction.
Without the clear boundaries of cubicle walls to confine collaboration and block distractions, new norms began to emerge. Headphones and do-not-disturb signs became invisible walls that kept distractions at bay. But they also seemed to stymie collaboration. Not wanting to interrupt someone’s flow, people began to avoid spur-of-the-moment conversation. Instead they’d contact coworkers via digital messages they could respond to when the deadline was met or the momentum had slowed.
Shared Spaces Went Unused
Even the common areas failed to fulfill their intended purpose. Another Harvard Business Review study found only three percent of face-to-face conversations were happening in shared spaces. And while it may seem like an open-office win that 90 percent of these conversations were happening at someone’s desk, the distraction they caused ultimately drove down overall interactions and productivity.
Coworker Relations Became Strained
Workplace norms shifted for good reason. No one wants to be disruptive when everyone else is trying to get work done. Even if the aim is to collaborate and problem solve, the motive doesn’t matter if your coworkers see you as distracting. A survey conducted by Future Workplace found an astronomical 99 percent of employees get distracted while working in their open-office environment. What’s more, 76 percent of those surveyed lay the blame for their lost productivity and focus on their coworkers.
4 Ways to Better Facilitate Open Office Collaboration
The good news is there are plenty of ways to reclaim collaboration in your open office setup. Many are so simple you can roll them into your return-to-office plan before everyone begins to emerge from their 100 percent work-from-home spaces.
Design for Flexibility
Re-designing your space doesn’t have to involve blueprints and contractors. It could be as simple as swapping out a few of the long cafeteria-style tables that keep everybody crammed together with individual desk spaces and some freestanding partitions. This could also support safer spacing for employees.
Consider including some mobile desks in the mix to allow people to configure their own setup in their chosen environment. Add a few small tables, couches and chairs with a mix of standing and sitting options so both individuals and teams can choose exactly how they want to collaborate. The bonus of investing in these flexible spaces is that you can continue to adjust them as you learn more about how your teams want to return to work.
Add Tools to Encourage Collaboration
Not every company is going to have the space, time or budget to invest in a suite of new furniture, especially in the early days of navigating the return to office. Fortunately, adding collaboration tools to existing spaces can help overcome people’s tendency to skip the shared spaces. In fact, one company found they could increase interactions by 50 percent simply by adding a white board to the space. Take a cue from them and stock your collaborative corners with sticky notes, markers, white boards and any other tools your teams may want to facilitate their planned or impromptu brainstorms.
In the past 17 months, people have become pros at collaborating virtually. Don’t let these skills disappear just because your teams are returning to the office. Instead, find ways to use them to facilitate both in-person and virtual collaboration. Encourage team members to use their digital statuses to communicate where they are in their workday. They can let coworkers know if they’re working from home, focusing or open to chat. No one is left to interpret the invisible wall that often undermines collaboration.
For discussions that don’t require immediate back-and-forth, encourage the use of shared documents and comments. This will prevent your team from getting burnt out on constant conversations, ensuring they come in fresh to the discussions that do need to take place face-to-face.
Communicate Early, Often and Clearly
As employees return to workplaces, everyone’s expectations are going to be a little bit different. For this reason, the most critical piece of your collaboration puzzle will be communication. Help your teams understand how to use the new spaces, define the purpose of your virtual tools, and ask them to weigh in on what’s working and what’s not. Be willing to adjust your approach based on feedback and communicate these adjustments back to the team. The ultimate goal is to get everyone on the same page and working harmoniously so they can do their best work together.
Let Us Make the Return to Work Easier
At Ergotron, we offer flexible, innovative solutions to support a collaborative return to work. Connect with an expert on our team to discuss your space.