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Your Open Office Didn't Work? 5 Better Ways to Boost Collaboration

Jason Myers
Jason Myers

Open offices haven't necessarily improved communication and collaboration. True collaboration depends less on what your office looks like than on how it operates.

  • We might think of open-concept office spaces as a way to get rid of visible (and invisible) walls and boost collaboration. In reality, these types of spaces might do more harm than good.
  • Likewise, spaces that are completely closed off will do little to benefit productivity and collaboration.
  • To drive communication and results, companies should look inward before making office renovations.

An associate professor at Harvard Business School declared the end of the open-concept office space in a recent podcast. Since the mid-1990s, the idea of an office without walls has gone from novel to ubiquitous. However, research shows it did little to improve productivity, and open offices might even inhibit exactly what they're designed to facilitate: communication and collaboration.

Why? Mostly because encouraging collaboration at work was never really the purpose of an open-concept space. Offices flocked to get rid of elements such as cubicles, personalized desks and solid design pieces because these things are expensive. Honestly, the term "open office" is just a nice way to describe an empty, impersonal space. Enthusiasts have done a lot to extol the virtues of these spaces, but they're little more than a transparent cost-cutting measure.

That isn't to say they're never useful. In collaborative environments where face-to-face interaction is essential (think sales settings), it makes sense not to wall everyone off from each other. But in fields such as marketing or engineering – where close concentration is key – working in an open office space is a distraction. Logically, most people work better in quiet, calm spaces, so it comes as no surprise that the open office is quickly falling out of style. But what will replace it?

A balancing act: Open space and closed cubicles 

It's neither accurate nor productive to proclaim that open offices don't work. After all, before the open office became something of a parody, we talked about cubicle farms in the same way. Few would suggest that the best office spaces segregate everyone into their own isolated zones, which means we must strike a balance between open and individualized. More importantly, we must focus less on how offices look and more on what they accomplish.

Part of the reason open office spaces now draw so much ire is that business leaders loudly proclaimed that workspaces with ping-pong tables instead of walls would be more fun (and therefore more collaborative). But that's childish, and most professionals know it. Good work doesn't happen because you can see most of your co-workers at any given time; it happens because you have the institutional tools to carry out your tasks.

Research into open offices backs this up: When companies switched to open floor plans, face-to-face interactions actually fell by 70% because people had fewer spaces to comfortably converse in. The attempt to make the entire office a collaborative environment backfired: The switch left no room for lively, engaging discussions. In fact, it led most employees to retreat into a world of noise-canceling headphones and impersonal messaging tools.

Tellingly, 62% of respondents to one survey said they would prefer their next office to have a closed layout. Many things drive the desire for separate spaces: taking private phone calls, stopping the spread of germs (which is more important than ever in the age of COVID-19), and eliminating near-constant distractions. [Read related article: Buying Cubicles? How to Choose the Right Office Furniture]

The bigger picture is that people are starting to reject the open office. Therefore, the goal for tomorrow's office shouldn't be installing a certain number of walls or creating a specific amount of private space. In fact, it shouldn't be about design at all. Instead, offices should use whatever means possible – policies, technology or culture – to make collaborative work practices easy and effective.

Collaboration: The secret ingredient in any office

The one resource that's completely unique to your company is your staff. That particular roster of individuals only works in one place, and how well they work together largely determines whether the company succeeds. That's especially true in today's fast-paced, highly disruptive business climate. We've all heard of small teams with amazing chemistry that developed world-changing products and billion-dollar brands. For some companies, collaboration is their single biggest asset. At others, it's the biggest obstacle.

When offices fail to collaborate, they struggle in ways that are both obvious and impossible to define. It's clear when miscommunications and lack of coordination make everyone's lives harder, but it's unknown how much those ongoing setbacks lead to lost business opportunities. Even without that clarity, high-performing employees will often leave ineffective teams to go someplace else. Who can blame them when the alternative is to stay at a company that is less than the sum of its parts?

Tomorrow's offices must encourage collaboration, which takes a lot more than just shared space. The solution is more complicated than that, but it's also more accessible. Companies don't need to invest in expensive office renovations (that make the space more or less open) to improve cohesion and collaboration. They can try these strategies instead.

1. Start from the top.

Changes to company culture start at the top of the organization. If you and the rest of your senior leadership don't prioritize collaboration in words and actions, efforts to improve it usually fall short. Thus, leadership training – specifically on ways to improve collaboration within a team – is vital for the C-suite or managers. When you and your managers are armed with this knowledge, you (and the teams you lead) will gain the necessary skills to foster collaborative work practices.

2. Shift from bosses to coaches and facilitators.

Ideally, collaborative offices have leaders who empower their team members to make decisions on their own instead of issuing orders from the top. Instead of deferring to people above them or delegating to people below, effective managers work across departments and ranks to achieve objectives. You and your other team members in leadership positions must be coaches and facilitators rather than micromanagers. Becoming a true coach often requires retraining and developing new skill sets, but the adjustment period is worth it, because collaboration thrives when people feel heard and supported. The command-and-control leadership style of the past just doesn't work anymore. [Read related article: Are You a True Leader or Just a Boss?]

3. Teach collaboration as a skill.

Collaboration doesn't mean soliciting a bunch of people's opinions before you make a unilateral decision. It means involving as many people as possible in the decision itself and using a collaborative process to incorporate their insights.

Collaboration truly is a skill – and like all other skills, it can be cultivated. Training on collaborative decision-making, for instance, shows teams how to work with each other (and with management) to make effective decisions quickly.

4. Illustrate the big picture.

When teams and departments are left to their own devices, they often retreat into silos and create unnecessary obstacles among themselves. Break these down by illustrating the big picture – how each part fits into the whole. The right perspective highlights collaborative opportunities as well as obstacles. Because this step facilitates the free flow of ideas and asserts the importance of each contributor, it encourages everyone to share their thoughts.

5. Protect open communication.

Nothing kills collaboration faster than making people feel like they can't speak up or that their ideas aren't heard. Collaborative environments depend on open communication, meaning people are free to exchange ideas (even the bad ones). On top of that, individuals are allowed to speak up about their needs, wants and limitations. For example, instead of assigning deadlines, you could work with your team to explore a reasonable delivery window. Open communication helps bring every good idea out into the open while also helping employees feel respected and valued.

An open office space might not improve collaboration – but it doesn't have to inhibit it, either. All it takes is the acknowledgment that office space alone can't bring people together. Teams can thrive in any space – open, isolated or remote – as long as they have a culture that values collaboration above all else.

Jason Myers
Jason Myers,
business.com Writer
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Jason Myers is the chief marketing officer and principal of Matrix Management Institute, a company that helps organizations and their leaders to adopt collaborative, open innovation and communication.