Communicating Your Open Office Plan

Pros, cons, and money.

June 25, 2014

I’m sort an office space sociologist wannabe.  

If we meet I’ll probably ask you about the place that you work, how you like it, and how your office space life has changed over your career.  (In fact, I’m asking you now - please share if so inclined).

The biggest thing I hear in all these conversations, probably to nobody’s surprise, is the move to the open office.

We just might be in the middle of one of the largest, and least noticed, migrations in the history of employment.  The migration from individual offices and cubicles to that of open offices.

I’m not sure if this shift is occurring in academia at a faster rate than other industries, and certainly higher ed lags behind technology, journalism, architecture, and some other professions.

But I keep hearing over and over again about the move of many non-faculty individuals, teams, and groups into new open office setups.  Mostly I hear about technical people moving from individual to open offices - programmers, web people, educational technologists, network folks, server administrators, and so on.  

Are you a higher ed person working in an open office?  What is your job?  How have you seen the place that you do your work change?

(And here I am talking about non-faculty people in higher ed.  In my experience there are many types of people that require an office to be effective, and faculty certainly fall into that category.  We should be fighting for every faculty member, inclusive of adjunct and non tenure-track folks, to have an office of their own).

Having experienced first-hand the move from an individual to an open office in my last academic gig I’d like to share some thoughts about how you might want to communicate such a move to your team if it is in the works.

What should you say if you are planning on moving your team to an open office?

Be Honest About the Pros and Cons:

Having worked in an open office for a couple of years I can say that there are many positives.  The environment was high energy and creative.  Our work was transparent, which greatly aided in communication and collaboration.  Information flowed quickly throughout the team.  There is a real sense of bonding when you share your space with colleagues.

When planning a move to an open office it is important to talk about these positives, but to not oversell things.  

The research on workplace productivity and happiness outcomes for open offices is not very encouraging. 

Open offices have upsides and downsides.  An open office setup may prove very challenging for some folks.  Not everyone can block out noise and distraction and focus effectively on a task (in fact, few of us can).  Open offices may have the perverse effect of limiting communication as every conversation is public.  

The thing to avoid is coming off as an open office cheerleader.  A more sober assessment of pros and cons, and the willingness to listen to concerns, will pay big dividends with the team down the road.

Talk About Costs and Investments:

The most important thing that you should talk about if you are moving to an open office is money.  Specifically, don’t shy away from sharing how much money will be saved by an open office setup.  

Space is expensive.  Buildings costs lots of money, and each square foot is at a premium.  Open offices allow for great work density, which enables capital building dollars to be spent on other things.  

In the academic context, less office space can mean more space tied to mission.  More space for classrooms and labs.  

Less office space can also mean more public spaces.  More spaces for collaboration.  More spaces for communication.

Most importantly, spending less money on square feet means more money for more brains. 

Go ahead and make the connection that the savings that can arise by great density through open offices will be plowed into spending on people.  On your job and mine.  On opportunities for professional development.  On technology, often mobile technology, that will let everyone be more productive.

People tend to understand and respect decisions when the economic drivers are more transparent.  

What advice would you give to anyone getting ready to move to an open office?

What has been your open office experience?


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