Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Open Office Designs, Collaboration and Productivity - The Ongoing Debate

The Michigan CEO Summit this month was a terrific event chaired by Doug Rothwell, President of Business Leaders of Michigan, at the Westin Book Cadillac November 9th.  This was a fast-paced event with exceptional speakers and a great group of participants.  Most presenters and panels were 15 to 25 minutes; a good pace.

I had three favorites during the day. One was Brian Walker, CEO of Herman Miller, talking about the future of office space.  Most attention getting for me was his speculation that our furniture would become “smart” and rise to greet us in the morning while reacting to our arrival in the office.  My particular takeaway was the opportunity which exists to create more open and engaged work spaces and work places. For example, Herman Miller offers this Hive configuration, designed for team collaboration.

Smart office furniture can provide terrific ergonomic benefits. Can it in any way address other satisfaction and productivity issues? Can work station lighting, height and other productivity benefits help us thrive in an open office environment?

The open office approach has become the singular answer to how a company trying to collaborate and innovate should be configured, as we all emulate cultural icons like Zappos and Google. Yet recent articles in Forbes, The Washington Post and elsewhere have raised significant questions about whether the open office environment really delivers what we expected. Based largely on a 2013 research study published in The Journal of Environmental Psychology, they are making the case that the loss in productivity and even health issues due to the noise and stress of an open environment is significant, while little evidence can be found for increased collaboration or work satisfaction. In fact, another trend – allowing people to work from home – shows much more promise in terms of increased productivity and innovation.

So, did we jump too quickly into the sexy idea of highly energetic and collaborative spaces fueling culture and creativity, or is there something we are missing? Could training play a role? What if people moving to a new environment were brought together to agree on new cultural norms and cues? What if they were supported in developing new habits and behaviors, skills and approaches to work, that would minimize the downsides of an open environment while realizing the benefits we’d all like to see gained through productive collaboration and problem-solving?

Learning and Performance Improvement peeps – what are your thoughts? Any experiences? Do you know of anyone who is intentionally developing people to help them perform in and maximize the promise of these environments? As far back as the mid-90s, when companies were first starting to try out the movement out of private offices and into smaller, more open work spaces, Prism worked with the GM Truck Group as they relocated their engineers to Centerpoint. Much thought and care went into their assimilation into the new environment. In our fast-paced world today, has this idea been lost?

Those of you who are working in an open environment, how’s your productivity? Are there positive impacts? What would make it more positive?

We’d love to hear your experiences and viewpoints.

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