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For Open Office Space, Manage Change

Brian Koshley

Recently, I returned from New York where, during my stay, I enjoyed a quiet evening outdoors at the High Line Hotel Bar in Chelsea. As we were enjoying our cocktails I made an observation about the evening’s clientele.

“What do you notice about this crowd that’s different than what we’ve been seeing?” I asked. My host looked around while enjoying the relief that dusk brought to a warm and humid week.

“I don’t know. What am I missing?”

“No one is on their phone!” I replied.

We looked around at the crowd, engrossed in conversation, comfortable in their surroundings and oblivious to any distraction.

It made me curious about the recent backlash over open-plan workplaces: Article after article about how Google and others have got it wrong and how the open office is the bane of our existence.

Yet here we were in a completely open setting, where the most intimate of conversations continued unabated. What was different about this environment that made it so successful, and honestly, so enjoyable?

Essentially, the High Line provided privacy in numerous ways: the canopy of the trees, the hedge between the bar and the busy street, and the variety of spaces and seating arrangements within a fairly basic, rectangular shape. We could see each other, so we knew we could hear each other. We all had the same visual access to our surroundings. And we knew, inherently, how to behave.

Many of us spend the majority of our waking moments at the office. If the architecture doesn’t support how we work, that’s a lot of time experiencing frustration — which can lead to disengagement.

As leaders, if we don’t provide our teams with the platform for success, we experience turnover, lack of productivity and in the worst cases, weaker connections with the people we lead.

Plan for Change

So what can we do to make the benefits of open office planning more successful? Here are a few hints:

I can see you! Our clients more often than not mistakenly believe that privacy means enclosure. High panels in an open office environment give a false sense of privacy. As a result, office occupants in these settings become less aware of those around them, and so the volume of their voices tends to increase.

Low panels actually increase acoustical privacy by simply making us more aware of those around us. The reality is low panels can create quieter environments.

The legacy of hierarchy. Environments that have transitioned to open office likely have done so over time from cultures of private office and hierarchical legacies. It takes forward-thinking leadership to recognize that views and sunlight should be rewarded to the masses and not simply to someone who has been with the company the longest, or who generates the most revenue.

Change is hard, stupid! Most cases I have read about the pitfalls of open office seem to have come from people who did not experience any kind of change management process. When my firm was preparing for its move in 2008, every time I was on the phone in my private office my instant messaging would explode with notes from my teams dripping with sarcasm. “It will be SO GREAT having you out in the open with us!” The message was clear, dial it down.

Navigating Open Spaces

We expect to reap all the collaborative benefits of an open plan without giving our people the skill sets to navigate new, uncharted waters. With that in mind, how many clients are aware that a change management program can arm their teams to successfully navigate the open office environment?

My trip to New York was enjoyable on several levels, not the least of which was an infusion of new motivation on how I can be a more impactful architect for my clients and their organizations. I wonder how their patrons would behave sitting on the outdoor steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, or the amphitheater in Horton Plaza?

Perhaps they’d be buried in their phones – the universal “do not disturb” sign of a generation — creating the impression of privacy where there was none. Luckily, a thoughtfully crafted environment allowed us to experience privacy while enjoying being part of the larger whole.

Brian Koshley is global director of interior architecture for Carrier Johnson + CULTURE.

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