Tips and Tricks for Losing Your Office

Gensler’s Michael Chappell shares a few tips and tricks for executives moving into an open plan.

Gensler open plan NYC
The Gensler New York office features open collaboration and focus spaces near open workstations, providing choice and variety for employees. Credit: © Garrett Rowland, courtesy of Gensler

So, your office is moving to an open plan. It can be a challenging transition, especially if you’ve worked in an office for a long time. There’s some inevitable anxiety and uncertainty that accompanies a shift from a closed to an open office environment. How do you handle confidential conversations? How do you lead calls and host meetings if you’re competing with noise or distractions? Most importantly, how can you be productive and effective in this new environment?

Transitioning to an open plan doesn’t have to be intimidating. In fact, if it’s an open plan where you have a range of spaces to support focus and collaboration, you might even be more effective and productive. Environments that are mostly open, but provide ample on-demand private space are the most effective and offer the best experience for employees. These environments provide areas of enclosure that support privacy and individual work, even while most or all employees sit in “open” individual spaces.

While I assume you do close to 100 percent of your work behind a closed door today, there are some aspects of working without an office that you’ll likely adjust to faster than you may expect:

  • Working in the open – There are probably many times that you’ve had to figure out how to be productive in different types of environments that are noisy or less than ideal for what needs to be done at that time, such as on a plane, in a hotel lobby, in a conference center lounge between meetings, etc. You’ll draw on this experience to help you acclimate and help you feel more comfortable doing some of your work in the open that you previously would have done behind a closed door – non-sensitive phone calls, individual work that’s not confidential, and conversations that aren’t private.
  • Finding a meeting space – If you’re moving into a balanced work environment with a range of spaces to meet that are close by and aligned to your team’s work patterns, this should be easier than you may expect. It’s certainly a change from being able to host every interaction in your office, but if you have small meeting rooms equipped with technology nearby, along with a range of functional informal meeting areas, this will be an easier adjustment than you may expect.
  • Reducing your storage – While your office today is likely a place where you organize yourself and express who you are, we often hear from leaders how liberating it is to reduce their storage and free themselves from unnecessary paper, filing, and storage. This a good first step to being leaner, lighter, and more thoughtful about the physical materials you need to be successful each day.
The Campari Group’s North American headquarters in New York features a branded workspace that connects employees to the company culture in a flexible and collaborative environment. Credit: © James John Jetel, courtesy of Gensler

However, it’s expected that there will be challenges to overcome with the change. For example, the flexible workplace we developed for an international government organization is being implemented in phases throughout its headquarters in New York. In this complex and multifaceted organization, the major challenges have been about messaging, communication, and stakeholder engagement. We worked with the client to develop a multi-pronged process and communication approach that could be delivered both top-down and through a more grassroots effort.

The following aspects will likely be challenging and will need your attention to thrive working in the open:

  • Planning out your day – Without a private office as your default workspace, it’s important to carefully consider which spaces in the office will support the variety of activities you do throughout the day. Over time, you’ll develop an innate ability to seek out the space that aligns with your needs at that moment.
  • Balancing collaboration and distractions – One of the benefits of sitting closer to your team is having more awareness of what’s happening in your group. You can easily troubleshoot challenges as they arise, as well as provide coaching and mentoring. However, those gains can come at the cost of your ability to manage distractions. Finding the right balance will take some time and will likely vary based what your priorities are each day.
  • Taking phone calls in the open – Whether they are sensitive or not, your calls today most likely take place in a closed room and possibly even on speakerphone. However, non-confidential conversations, as well as calls that you join but are not leading, are probably just fine to take at your desk. It may take a while to feel comfortable, but over time, it will become easier to determine whether a call requires a room or can be taken in the open.
  • Having confidential conversations – Working in the open will require you think critically about what’s privileged information, and there will be an adjustment as you find the right spaces for those meetings. Depending on the topic and degree of confidentially, you may need to reserve a meeting room or step away from your team to take a call in the café or pantry. This is another reason why it’s important to plan out your day and space needs as much as you can.
The United Technologies Digital Accelerator offers employees a dynamic and creative workplace in Empire Stores on the Brooklyn waterfront. The space includes conference rooms for large meetings, open break-out spaces for informal meetings, and phone rooms for private conversations. Credit: © Garrett Rowland, courtesy of Gensler

Moving to an open plan space can also give you the opportunity to lead by example, model behaviors you expect from your team, and follow the established etiquette and protocols. For instance, we recently updated one of the floors in our New York office to support a shift to a dynamic seating model. With the goal of sparking more awareness and experimentation between our multi-disciplinary teams, our managing directors have given everyone “an invitation to play.” They have been strong advocates for the change in office-wide meetings, encouraging and celebrating behaviors, and addressing challenges.

These tips should help you adjust and make the most of your new environment:

  • Be accessible when you can – Take advantage of being in the open and closer to your team. You’ll likely gain a stronger pulse on what’s happening each day and be able to react to things as the progress. You may also see that it speeds up decision-making through more informal conversations.
  • Use space to manage your availability – If there are shared spaces near your desk that are designed to support focus, utilize them to get individual work done. Your conscious choice to sit somewhere else is signaling to your team that you shouldn’t be interrupted.
  • Use a room when you need it, but don’t camp out – It’s expected that you’ll be heavy users of meeting rooms for a variety of activities. However, if you end up commandeering a room for all your work, it will send the wrong message and leave your team with one less meeting room to support their work.
  • Encourage informal meetings when it makes sense – If your meeting is not about a sensitive topic and doesn’t have anyone joining virtually on the phone or video, then consider hosting it in an open collaborative space. As a leader, you have significant influence on where your team meets. The more meetings that can happen in the open, the more available rooms there will be for the activities that really need them.
  • Welcome open dialogue and feedback – You may feel comfortable asking colleagues to keep their voices down when you’re on a call, but they’ll likely be hesitant to give you the same kind of feedback. If your colleagues’ behaviors are impacting your work, a little coaching can go a long way. For example, rather than telling someone their voice is too loud, suggest they take their conversation to a meeting room.
  • Coach each other – Everyone will adjust to working without an office at their own pace. However, if you see a peer struggling, share what works for you. Similarly, if you’re having trouble adjusting, ask a colleague how they are navigating the new workplace. The headquarters and global workspace for one of our major financial clients is undergoing a significant transformation, shifting to an open plan space and provides more choices to support a range of activities. We worked with the client to establish a network of “change champions” who are uniquely positioned to shape a narrative that resonates with their team, as well as address individual challenges.
  • Strengthen the culture of your team – The more you can align this change to the goals and objectives of your team, the more it will resonate with your staff and the easier it will be for you to champion it.
Gensler open plan NYC
Another view of the Gensler New York office, featuring open collaboration and focus spaces. Credit: © Garrett Rowland, courtesy of Gensler

Finally, try new things and be patient. As with any change, the more open-minded you are, the faster you’ll determine what works for you in your open plan space. The first few weeks and months will take some adjusting, but don’t let the moments of frustration undermine your journey. Take time to figure out a new routine and to celebrate the successes and milestones. For example, the program we developed to support Verizon’s new workplace culminated in a ‘welcome event’ – complete with breakfast, posters, and balloons – organized by the Global Real Estate team to thank employees for their patience through the construction process and officially open the door for business in the new space.

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