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Create an Open Office Plan that Works for Everyone

by Keith Fentress / April 20, 2017


We are going to speak affirmatively about adapting from a traditional office environment to an open floor plan. You've seen this in any number of places over the years. What might not be recognized is that this move provides an opportunity for change. Not just a change in how the office looks and feels, but a change in the culture of the organization. 

While the primary goal of the space transition may be to reduce costs, this provides us with an ideal opportunity for change in other areas. One such opportunity is transforming the organization to a more positive and productive workplace.

Managers should engage their employees in this transformation – otherwise the effort could result in a waste of time and money. Wait.  You say this is your decision. And your money. Well, let's recognize without positive outreach, you will very likely impact employee morale and commitment.

So, the question remains, how do you communicate realistic and effective goals to your employees? The answer is through an effective employee engagement process.

Scenario 1: Mutiny

Several years ago, a friend told me a story about a major issue in his workplace. He was working for a large engineering firm that decided to make the transition to an open office. The decision was announced to employees via an email from management.  That message promoted cost as the driving factor in the decision. The prevailing logic was that employees would need to give up private offices and cubicles, and work from shared workstations to reduce space and costs. While this is logical, the organization did little to engage employees in the effort. In effect, the decision was forced upon the staff.

As management pressed forward with the move to an open space design, the employees became increasingly resistant to the plan. Productivity in the office slowed as employees complained about loss of space, having to share workstations, reduced personal storage, etc. Mid-level managers became mired in gripe sessions with staff, and were caught in the middle between employees and upper management.

The plan went through, and eventually, the ribbon was cut on an open office with brand-new shared workstations, collaboration rooms, rooms for focused work, and informal seating areas. However, the employees “mutinied” and refused to occupy the new space.

Work came to a standstill and many talented people became upset and left the organization over several months. Upper management finally hired a facilitation team to come in and work with the employees and management to resolve the issues. It took nearly a year and a partial redesign before the space even started to be occupied. The mistrust and scars left by this effort linger today, nearly three years after project completion.

What a colossal waste of time, money, and effort – all of which could have been avoided by engaging employees in the process from the start!

Scenario 2: Open Office Fears and Anxiety

The thought of moving into an open office can be very stressful. The unknown factor can bring about anxiety. Space has traditionally been used as a benefit earned by employees as they climb the corporate ladder (e.g., staff have cubicles, managers have larger offices with windows, and directors have corner offices). Employees with private offices often feel entitled because they believe their hard work earned them that space. Taking any space away from employees, but particularly a private office, can cause resentment and/or anxiety over working from a new and different environment.

The book Space Meets Status by Jacqueline C. Vischer highlights the concerns employees may have as an organization undertakes a space transition project.

Vischer says that among other things, an employee may interpret the flexible furniture layouts of an open office to mean office “homelessness,” that shared offices can be interpreted as having no privacy, or low partitions as being watched, and mobility as being replaceable.

For each of these concerns, Vischer notes that there is a corresponding positive opportunity. A flexible furniture layout can also mean having access to more space – having the right space to meet the task at hand and the ability to work from many locations in the office. Shared offices can mean that teamwork is being cultivated as employees work together. Low partitions can provide employees with a greater opportunity to watch, listen, and learn from others. Mobility can mean that the employees have more autonomy and are trusted by management.

This may seem like an exercise in whether an employee sees a glass as half empty or half full. And certainly, some people are more prone to dwell on negatives or to fear change more than others. We need to recognize resistance to change is a common issue that organizations face any time a major change is about to be implemented. This is especially the case with change that directly affects an employee’s sense of privacy and comfort. Successfully moving employees from these concerns to a place where they can focus on opportunities requires a well thought out employee engagement plan.

Scenario 3: Engaging Your Employees

It’s important to uncover the feelings and beliefs that lead to resistance – to bring them into the light so they can be addressed in a constructive fashion. Dealing with resistance is never easy, but it can tell us a lot – what people deeply care about, the effectiveness of communication, and potential areas for compromise. The bottom line is that the cornerstone of successful change management is for your employees to be involved in all stages of the space transition process - planning, programming, and design.

Every organization is different, so there are no ironclad rules of engagement. However, here is a list of employee engagement activities that can be used as a starting point and then adapted to each organization.

  • Communication Strategy - develop a strategy to communicate information on the space transition project, which includes the levels of communication, frequency, content, and medium (e.g., email/messaging, presentations, online resources, in-person meetings, regular staff/team meetings).
  • Town Hall Meeting(s) - gather employees in larger numbers to present information on the space transition project. This is often the first in-person meeting. It is helpful to present both the views of management and of peers who are supporters of the project (change champions).
  • Survey - administer a survey of all employees to gather feedback on how they work, their views on the project, and their level of resistance to change.
  • Focus Groups - facilitate a more in-depth meeting with six to eight people (or a core in smaller offices) who are representative of a division or branch. The focus groups can do a deep-dive into the survey results to address key findings or questions from the design team. The focus groups can also be used in a free-form format to address questions or concerns from the participants.
  • Interviews – conduct one-on-one interviews with managers and other key personnel to shed light on how your organization works, special space needs, and specific questions and concerns about the transition project.
  • Workshops - provide a representative sample of employees with a hands-on opportunity to communicate preferences on space concepts. Employees could look at photographs that present different space elements and indicate their preference for each element. Or they could use simple materials like construction paper, playdough, popsicle sticks, etc. to lay out a well-functioning office that accommodates their workflow and adjacency requirements. The growing field of design psychology provides exercises to help employees envision future office space so they will feel more connected to the workplace.
  • Hands-on Prototype - set up an area that contains the type of furniture and technology anticipated in the new office design. Employees can spend time in this space to get accustomed to the look and feel of the new space, which will help ease the transition.
  • Utilization Studies - perform a space utilization study to gather data on how frequently offices and conference rooms are used, and by how many people. The results of a space utilization study can be eye-opening for both management and employees.
  • Design Concept Review - look at initial design concepts with employees to gather feedback on preferences and how well they believe the new space will function.
  • Concierge Program - appoint peers as employee representatives to help coordinate the office move. This approach is called a “concierge” program, where these employees address scheduling, packing up, and moving concerns from a peer perspective. Such programs can even extend beyond the space move, where the representatives stay on for a year or more to deal with issues that arise in the open office (e.g., blaring music, loud talking, over-claiming collaboration rooms). Such programs can help employees adapt and resolve issues while they are still molehills… before they grow into mountains.

More than Just Space and Facilities

Let's not oversimplify the situation. Space transition is a major change management process. The list of employee engagement activities is as comprehensive as the engagement activities of any major organizational change – a reorganization or merger, new HR system, major technology deployment, etc. All too often, space and facilities are regarded as a low priority and are given less attention than warranted.

I had a mentor who considered office space just like hotel space. If you travel to a town and there is a decent room in a hotel, you will likely get rest and be more successful in your pursuits. Without a hotel room, achieving your pursuits becomes more problematic. With the proper space, organizations can better achieve their mission. If the space is inadequate, the mission of the entire organization suffers. 

The issue of private offices versus open workstations is certainly a hot topic for any organization considering a space transition. But the employee engagement process will address many other issues as well, such as conduct expectations, how employees will be managed, employee policy changes (e.g., teleworking or desk sharing), and new technologies (e.g., videoconferencing, workstation reservation systems). Thus, changing the space can represent a fundamental shift in the culture of an organization. At a minimum, this change will require a coordinated effort between the space and facilities, human resources, and information technology divisions within an organization. This is why many companies turn to an experienced facilitator that has a background in space transition. However your organization proceeds with its space transition, having an effective employee engagement process is key.

The Process is Human…So Plan Accordingly

The employee engagement process is a two-way street, with management communicating its plans and goals while listening to and addressing employee reactions. It is not simply a process to placate employees. The process will not run smoothly with one step sequentially following the next. Two steps forward may require a step back, especially if done in haste. Employees will have real issues and concerns that will require attention and that may delay schedules. There will be many meetings with individuals and groups of employees to address specific issues and concerns. Management and the design team will likely need to make compromises in the new space to ensure that employees feel heard. Having a strategy for dealing with resistance is key.

Prevent the Mutiny

A full-out employee mutiny may be a worst-case scenario, but management and employees often engage in a battle of wills during a space transition. How much more beneficial would it be to engage employees in a way that fosters communication, builds trust, and ultimately improves productivity and performance.

Just as legendary pirate captains united their motley crews in their singular quest for treasure, employee engagement is the key to accomplishing a successful space transition quest. And while the results may not include gold doubloons, avoiding a mutiny and enjoying an efficient and productive new space is ample reward!



Tags: Open Office Design

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.