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Which Management Style is Best for the Open Office Environment?

by Pam Kendall / July 27, 2017

Change can be a terrifying word to some people. It doesn’t matter if it’s something small, such as changing your diet and trying to eat a little healthier, or something big like packing up your family, moving to a different state, and changing jobs. Change is difficult. And change management can be formidable. Especially when it comes to managing an open office space transition project.

Should you separate yourself from the people you manage or should you include your team in the process? Should you simply give them their marching orders or should you lead by example? Transitioning from a traditional office to an open office environment involves a lot of logistical planning and a lot of preparation. What’s the best management style to successfully lead your team through all the change?

Let’s discuss top-down management vs. bottom-up management and see if we can come up with the best approach.

Management is Not for the Faint of Heart

Managers everywhere deal with the same struggles. How do I get my employees to do their best? Why do we go over budget every month? How do I get my clients to pay on time so I can make payroll? If you’re reading this blog with hopes of finding answers to these questions, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. It’s just not realistic to think that a blog can answer questions that have been asked forever, and will likely continue to be asked for a long, long time.

But what I can help you with is finding the right balance in your management style, so that maybe you no longer wonder, “What should I do so that I come across as a leader and not a big jerk?” “What should I do to best accomplish our organization’s goals?”

A perfect example for considering the relative effectiveness of management style options is a space transition change to an open office. Let’s get started.

Top-down Management Approach

We’ve all experienced what is known as the top-down approach, or autocratic leadership style, often found in the business world. Decisions are made by the head honcho, passed down through lower level management, and then all the little worker bees are expected to fall in line and deal with it. OK, maybe that was a little extreme, but you get the idea. Policy decisions that change or improve the workplace are made independently by upper management without any input from, or discussion with, the employees.

The top-down approach creates a clear chain of command within a company. Employees know who to go to when they need guidance on a task and it helps avoid conflicting priorities that often occur when there are multiple leaders. Employees can put their heads down and get their work done efficiently.

But is this the best management approach when the change directly impacts an employee’s daily work habits, such as when a company transitions to an open office environment and employees are forced to give up their private space? Maybe some people are okay with being told what will happen, with little to no input. But I’d be willing to bet that a lot of people have a greater need to provide and/or receive input. There will likely be distinct personality differences and even generational differences when it comes to how people feel about management styles, with many younger workers expecting a more collaborative management style. If the management team isn’t careful, the top-down approach can easily result in team members feeling like their voices don’t matter and that they are not being listened to or cared about. This can lead to divisiveness within the company and an unhappy workforce, which I think we can all agree… no one is okay with.

But if done right, the top-down approach can also offer the opportunity to lead by example. When a manager is seen embracing new space concepts, this can produce an “aha moment” where employees feel that “if he or she can do it, so can I.”

Bottom-up Management Approach

More and more companies are basing their management styles on what’s known as the bottom-up approach. Compared to the top-down approach, the concept of including team members in every step of a project might seem a little “kumbaya.” The goals, values, and expectations might still be communicated to a team by upper management. But, it is now the responsibility of the entire team to discuss the goals and to come up with ideas or solutions about how to best accomplish the tasks. The way projects are completed and the timing in which subtasks are completed is often left up to individuals.

The bottom-up approach often results in team members being more motivated to accomplish their tasks and make the project they’re working on a success because they are part of the entire planning process. With multiple people planning how a project will be completed, project planning tends to lead to more “buy-in” and project ownership by team members. And with everyone on the team included, there’s a lot of transparency when it comes to schedules, budgets, and resource allocation.

Transitioning to an open office environment offers a lot of opportunities to engage employees from start to finish. Not completely sold on the bottom-up approach yet? That’s okay. Neither am I. That’s why I think it makes sense for us to discuss the benefits of combining the best aspects of both the top-down and the bottom-up approach.

An Example

One example that contrasts the efficacy of top-down and bottom-up management was a space transition project in Southern California where the company’s management team was a strong proponent of the concept of collaborative interaction among its employees. It was believed that collaboration would result in more creative business solutions. So the company invested in collaborative hub spaces designed to support casual and regular interaction among its employees.

Using the bottom-up approach, a very appealing collaborative space was planned and designed by the employees themselves. However, despite the engaging design of the space and amenities, the collaborative space turned out to be minimally used.

Why? The company’s management team members stayed hidden in their private offices and conference rooms and did not use the collaborative space.




This sent a message to the employees that the collaborative space was not where “serious” work was to be done, and in using the space, the employees were viewed by management as wasting time. This situation required the management team to actively use the collaborative space to confirm that it was in fact a useful and productive space – i.e., to lead by example.

Best Management Approach

When it comes to managing a team transitioning to an open office environment, blending the top-down approach with the bottom-up approach may be the best solution. Every organization and every project is different, but the basic principles remain the same.

The top-down approach allows for the manager to retain control. Managers are able to set clear goals and objectives for projects while keeping a sense of accountability and transparency among team members. It even offers the benefit of leading by example.

By contrast, the bottom-up approach to space transition project planning clearly leads to more “buy-in” and project ownership by team members. In today’s workplace, this is almost mandatory.

Like a lot of decisions in life, the best solution is often a compromise.

Tags: Open Office Design

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Pam Kendall

Pam Kendall

Pam Kendall is a statistical data analyst and web developer who likes to spend her free time playing guitar, hanging out with friends, and traveling.