Have you worked in or setup any Open Space Work Configurations at your company? Did you experience success? Did it start out successful and then fizzle out? Did the effort crash and burn in a blaze of glory?
Over recent years, many people have written about a wide range of experiences with Open Space Work Configurations. Some people have experienced benefits to productivity, innovation, and collaboration while others have experienced a decrease in productivity, team morale or other negative results. What created this range of experiences is an incomplete understanding of what open space is.
I have been fortunate enough to be in and around over 40 uniquely different space configurations (some less “open” than advertised) both early in my career as a member of different teams, and later as a consultant helping others create effective space. I have witnessed amazing improvements in collaboration, productivity and morale from successfully implemented open space settings. The successful configurations (those that increase one or more of the following: productivity, innovative/creative thinking, morale, utilization, throughput/flow and more) all had four common concepts working for them which I will lightly cover in this article, leaving the details of each for future posts/conversations.
Flexibility is key here. Flexibility allows for those who use a space to own its function, and ownership contributes greatly to the initial and continued success of any space. The more flexible the space, the broader range of activities it can accommodate. Improper planning and implementation of an open space area can create a very limiting and sometimes chaotic environment. To avoid this, an effective open space should be designed to allow teams to conduct many types of work efforts. This helps promote a layout that is practical, dynamic, versatile, profitable, and fun. Also, you don’t need to spend an inordinate amount of money to create an effective open space. Simplicity, flexibility and diversity of configuration should always be a top focus. Save your money for talent, quality tools of your trade, and comfortable chairs!
The “open” space is only part of an effective space. An effective structure is a blending of open areas and private gathering spaces. Ensuring sufficient “other” space enables private conversations, group break-out sessions, or occasional quiet/focus time, all of which are necessary to maximize any team’s potential. This structure also allows for better utilization of many existing configurations. I’ve seen effective setups where offices and cubes which were primary work spaces become breakout/quiet space and former large meeting areas become the base locations of teams to gather and work. Open space without complementary gathering/break-out space will fall short of achieving gains and may fail altogether.
A great space (open and other) does not guarantee team success on its own. In many cases, the open space concept and structure is completely foreign to those expected to utilize it. Teams need to learn how to effectively leverage the newly designed space in ways that enhance productivity and innovative thinking. Learning and leveraging complementary techniques for working and collaborating in this new environment are critical to gaining early positive momentum within the space and key to achieving sustainable success within it.
So you have the space, the techniques, and the talent…but will it last? Companies have started open space concepts with successful early outcomes only to watch the benefits fade over time. The success of an open space concept will become part of the cultural dynamic of the organization if given enough time to mature. Organizational and cultural support for the approach during the early stages of learning and over a sustained period of time is necessary for long-term success.
Eventually, given time, a productive space teaches leaders and talent that its less about the way people work together in a specific part of the building and more about the way people work together period.