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Six lessons for making open office work


The “open office” is a growing trend in corporate America. Eliminating walls and private offices is proving to be popular with CEOs, such as Citigroup’s Michael Corbat, who are certain of an open office’s cost reduction benefits and hopeful of its collaboration potential. Yet, the open office has also delivered some unintended consequences, such as increased noise and lack of privacy.

We won’t spend our time here debating the merits or demerits of the open office concept. Rather, the following is intended as a how-to guide for bank managers that have already decided to implement it. When a financial institution converts its facilities from traditional private offices to open offices, it consciously erases an ingrained culture of private offices, along with the prestige and solitude they conferred. But what replacement culture does it cultivate?

In our observation: sometimes nothing, sometimes worse than nothing. We have seen multiple memos about the need to respect co-workers’ privacy when privacy has been deliberately destroyed. Or “tips,” often perfunctory and patronizing, suggesting employees utilize headphones and admonishing them about speakerphones and loud voices.

Workers are left to flounder their way, individually, not as an organization. After all, there is no such thing as “no culture.” Whether management guides it or not, a culture does emerge. And the culture is often territorial, hostile, fretful, secretive and covert. Hardly the culture of innovation and collaboration intended.

Here are six lessons for making the open office work at your bank:

It’s an organizational solution, not an individual worker obligation. What do bank leaders normally do when introducing other major changes, such as a new technology, a diversity program or an acquisition? They devise thoughtful implementation strategies, steady and informed communications, intensive training tailored to different groups, detailed implementation planning, success milestones, corrective measures as needed, and above all, visible, sustained executive commitment.

That’s the first step in making the open office work, too – recognizing that behavioral change and cultural adaption are the sacred obligation of leaders, not individuals. And further, recognizing that individuals, one at a time, no matter how well they adapt, make little dent on the problem if the rest of their office mates are unaware of or indifferent to their efforts.

You would fix the problem today if you knew the cost. We often hear open office proponents retreat from criticism with, “People will just have to get used to it. Some people handle it better than others, so hopefully, over time…” When we hear leaders say that, we know one thing: They have not calculated the cost of the crisis. Consider these statistics:

  • In our experience in companies of all kinds around the world, 93% of workers report that they lose three to five hours a day, every day, due to interruptions and distractions. That averages out to half their time!
  •  Even a brief interruption of about 2.8 seconds can be catastrophic, doubling employee errors, according to research funded by the U.S. Navy.
  • More than a decade ago, Basex Research found that interruptions were costing American businesses $588 billion a year, and growing at 7% per year. That gets us way past a trillion dollars lost annually today.

Further, interruptions and distractions don’t just steal time; they steal creativity, accuracy, motivation, happiness and even safety, depending on the job.

It’s not one size fits all. Developing a nuanced solution recognizes three dimensions of the optimal workspace, the first being type of work. Some work requires intense concentration, some total privacy, or near-constant collaboration, or close coordination, or scrupulous monitoring. Workspace needs to accommodate all of those needs.

Most workers do multiple types of work. Those who need to create in peace and quiet at other times need to collaborate, so their quiet spaces need ready access to communal spaces. Executives who need privacy for much of their work must also remain highly accessible and visible to their teams. Workers who perform well in noisy and distracting environments (e.g., call center employees) still need quiet and privacy for coaching and learning.

We have different personality types. An energizing environment for one person is draining for another. Peace and quiet is the recipe for stimulating many creative types, but for others silence and solitude are depressing. Workers can learn to function better in their least-favorite environments, but workspace that fails to accommodate this dimension is stressful.

Time Lock to deter interruptions. There comes a time in almost everyone’s workday when they need to be left alone to concentrate on some task. Employees’ biggest complaint about open offices is not being able to find private space. The solution is to negotiate a “Time Lock.”  For a specified period of time, an individual can focus completely on a task, with no interruptions except for an actual emergency.

If Time Locking is not a management-approved part of the culture, people will be reluctant to ask for it on their own. When Time Locking is unfolded in a corporate cultural context, everybody learns what Time Locks are, what they are for, how they are to be conducted, how they are to be respected and best of all, how everybody can Time Lock when necessary. If, as often happens, workers lack the negotiating and communications skills for this, they need to be taught.

Focal Lock to deter distractions. There are multiple techniques for learning to concentrate, or Focal Lock. Over time, people learn what works best for them and are astonished to discover how much time they recover as a result. This deserves more space than we have here, but the salient fact is two-fold: a) People are in general not very good at concentrating; never having learned it as a skill, and b) Concentrating is an entirely acquirable skill and desperately needed in today’s distracting times. When we aren’t being distracted by others, we often distract ourselves by letting our minds drift to matters easier, more interesting, or more compelling than the task at hand.

Create a culture of allocating time productively. Time Locking and Focal Locking help people recover time, but unless and until a time-managed culture replaces a culture of interruptions and distractions, it doesn’t matter what culture or strategies bank managers attempt to introduce. Leaders need to guide people in making wise time-allocation choices by helping them distinguish among their tasks, in other words, identifying what’s urgent versus what’s important.

When the light bulbs begin to go off, and people see the results of wise time allocation, that’s when the time-managed culture thrives, and leaders can expect to see their strategies executed successfully.

Mr. Brown is co-chairman and president and Ms. Lubahn is global productivity and cultural specialist of Los Angeles-based Cohen Brown Management Group Inc. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].