Tearing Down the Walls: How Open Workspaces Contribute to a Collaborative Culture

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What does your office workspace on a holistic level say about the corporate culture your company is trying to build?

B2B firms are historically more conservative in their corporate practices due to the gravity of their client responsibilities, and the professional nature they hope to promote in their offices to ensure that business is being conducted in the most productive and proficient manner possible. This is part of the reason why even with increasingly laid-back work attire that can be seen in offices in the last decade, suits and ties are still a standard practice among accounting, consulting, and financial services firms. The wearing of a suit conjures an image of professionalism and order in the workspace, in the same way that the design and layout of a workspace does. Cubicles, conference rooms, file drawers, personal photos and coffee mugs with your brand’s logo all scream “office space” to anyone familiar with the corporate world.

This begs the question, what happens when corporate giants change the dynamic of their workspaces by creating an “officeless office.” The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on the implementation of open workspaces that is trending among companies like American Express, GlaxoSmithKline, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.  An open workspace is just that; no cubicles, no private secluded areas– just open space with plenty of tables which employees share, and they can easily converse with one another simply by turning their head. Not only is the initiative more environmentally friendly because it reduces the footprint building big and separated offices spaces can produce, it also cuts down real estate costs and saves companies millions in rent and energy costs because employees are working closer together, which facilitates sharing.

However, the most valuable outcome of the innovative open office structure is that it actually encourages workers to converse with one another face to face more often than through email, making it easier to come to conclusions instead of going back and forth via email. The article reads, “In surveys of employees who switched from assigned cubicles and offices, Glaxo found email traffic dropped by more than 50%, while decision making accelerated by some 25% because workers were able to meet informally instead of volleying emails from offices and cubes.”

Robert Nash, Glaxo’s director of U.S. environment health and safety says of the change, “I am spending less time emailing with colleagues and more time instead in brief, casual meetings, which lead to quicker decisions.” Employee engagement is a key contributor to the building of a strong corporate culture. The implementation of open workspaces seems to facilitate a work environment where collaboration is valued, opinions and viewpoints are shared,  and discussions  take place in person rather than behind computer screens and 4 foot tall walls which tend to create a feeling of inaccessibility and separation with individuals who are supposed to be your colleagues.

So, if tearing down the cubicle walls is enough to spark collaboration and a sense of community, then perhaps a key element of any culture building program should be providing employees with a work space that connects them on a human level, rather than on an incessantly digital level. An employee at PricewaterhouseCoopers says she appreciates being able to have a more interactive setting at work, stating that she learned a lot about her colleagues by sitting at their desks, surrounded by their personal items. “I like looking at everyone else’s kids…I think it makes us all feel closer to each other.”

At DeSantis Breindel, we recently moved to a new office with open workspaces, and often find that it not only makes for an airier and more pleasant environment, but also fosters productivity. Employees meet at each other’s desks for small discussions and are able to ask quick questions or opinions without sending an email or instant message. It makes for a less stuffy environment, where ideas and thoughts are exchanged face to face, creating more effective, faster, and productive decision making processes. Business does not need to be personal, but perhaps adding an element of openness that fosters communication and free thinking could be the key to creating not only a more enjoyable and productive workspace, but an engaged and collaborative workforce.

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