Open Environments in a Closed Office

I've been railing against open offices and office meetings (especially micro meetings) on my blog for the last few weeks, and I have one more thing to add to this series. I'd like to talk about creativity in a "meetingless" / "interruptionless" office. Generally, people that believe in open offices believe in the creativity of the micro-meeting, and they believe in the collaborative power of spontaneous large group meetings (hence the open office). There is some truth to the fact that a spontaneous large group meeting, or hallway discussions, can lead to some very interesting and creative decisions. But why? And how can you create a creative environment within a constraint of few to no meetings?

First, let me say that an interruptionless office does not mean that there will be no hallway discussions, discussions over coffee, lunch, donuts, etc. In fact, I've found that even in semi-closed offices, these happen more often, because people feel more at liberty to just walk around. There's no chance of them disturbing anyone directly, so when they feel the need to be creative, they'll wander the halls, go to the cafeteria, or sit in a lounge, and just talk.

Second, as I talked about in the "Meetingless" post, a Meetingless office doesn't have no meetings, it just creates a culture of most group meetings being optional, minimizes interruptions caused by meetings, creates times that are guaranteed to have no meetings, and creates alternatives to split-second, micro meetings and micro decisions that I feel are an overall team detriment.

In general, there are three things that I feel open offices achieve automatically, that a closed office needs to work on:

  1. Removing psychological barriers to communication. As I've stated before, I admit that walls create psychological barriers to communication. To remove these you need to create an atmosphere that people are approachable in and outside of their office. Team building (the next point) helps with this, but managers, and leaders have to take extra steps to make sure that they are approachable. A few suggestions are to implement skip levels, hold frequent one-on-ones (which you should be doing anyway) and to meet outside your office. Coffee shops and established open areas in the office are great for this.
  2. Foster team building.  This doesn't mean everyone has to do trust falls, but it does mean you need to make efforts to bring the team together. This can be anything from catering lunch (which is what Fog Creek does), hosting in office Happy Hours, office Board Game Night (a personal favorite), or other office parties. Just make sure people mingle.
  3. Create open spaces for work and discussion.  This may sound like it goes against everything I've said, but I do still believe in having portions of the office be open spaces. Sometimes, you want to get out of your office, sit on a couch, and relax. Maybe go with a few other team mates to look over a problem. Maybe discuss something in a smaller open environment. Make these comfortable spaces and give employees the means to work in them (laptops or otherwise portable workstations, whiteboards, lots of power and wireless) and people will.  Even more so if they know they won't disturb others by doing so.

Generally, I feel like, cost aside, closed offices create happier, more productive employees, and that the benefits of an open office can be simulated more readily than those of a closed office.

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