Archive for October, 2013

Open Office Spaces and Telework: Marriage Made in Heaven, That No One Talks About

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There’s a growing awareness that if an organization wants to realize the full potential of its open office space, then there are some real challenges that have to addressed related to uninterrupted focus, and quiet.  

Yes, when you substitute long tables and plug-and-play spaces for office walls and dedicated cubicles, you can fit more people into the same area which saves money.  And, when individuals encounter each other more easily throughout the day, it can encourage collaboration and creativity that might not happen otherwise.

But what do you do when you need uninterrupted time to focus deeply on a project?  Where do you go to have a private conversation with a colleague or a client?

Currently, the answer is to offer a certain number of quiet rooms that can be reserved in advance for a specific period of time or to provide areas/alcoves that provide some freedom from disturbances.

Unfortunately, what we’re hearing from employees and leaders is that these dedicated private spaces oftentimes don’t match the need. Here are some common experiences:

  • A person will reserve a room for an hour to give their undivided attention to a project, but finds that sixty minutes isn’t enough time. However someone else needs the room. They have to pick up in the middle of their work and lose momentum.
  • An individual spins his wheels struggling to complete a report by the end of the day because colleagues decide to hold an impromptu meeting in the space next to where he is working. He tries to find an alcove that’s quieter but all are taken.

People have found ways to adapt and work around the challenges. They are using headphones even though the music can be a distraction, albeit a lesser one. Others extend their workday to complete the tasks that require the most concentration. They wake up earlier and work from home before they leave or in the evening when they return.

But there’s alternative solution that doesn’t get enough attention. What if organizations promote the periodic use of telework as a alternative option when undistracted attention and quiet are needed to get the job done, well and efficiently? It’s a win-win for both the organization and its people.  The cost-saving/innovation benefits of the open office space are coupled with the productivity boost from periodic, strategic and targeted telework. If done correctly, it can be a marriage made in heaven.

Instead of losing focus and productivity:

  • A person who needs to give undivided attention to a complex project can telework that day from a location that allows her to think deeply.
  • An individual who finds the impromptu meeting of his colleagues too distracting, can leave and find a location more conducive to concentration.

After her group transitioned to an open office space plan, the General Counsel of a global pharmaceutical company quickly realized the power of telework to address the concentration struggles of her team.

She encouraged her staff attorneys to pick the place where they did their best thinking when they needed to prepare for a case and get through a complicated document.

Some attorneys chose to work in the office, some at home and others from a coffee shop where no one knew them. One attorney even chose to work from a library close to the office.

The trick is that the General Counsel couldn’t determine where each person who reports to her would be the most productive on a given day.  For the open office space/telework marriage to thrive, each individual employee has to be taught, as part of their everyday work+life fit management practice, to think through “where” they will do their job most effectively.

The open office space trend will continue as organizations look for ways to cut overhead and save money. However CFOs and facilities management should partner upfront with Human Resources, the IT group, managers and employees and explore how telework can make the transition successful for the business and its people.

For more on the topic, check out Katherine Lewis’ recent article on Fortune.com  “The slow death of the private office.”

What do you think?  Are open office spaces and telework destined to be together?