Think twice before you give your manager a door
While a very tired conversation about the evils of the open office is sustained with bad data and echoed in popular business press, more and more of our clients ask why they need walls, or desk phones, or even desks, anymore. They appropriately see almost every fixed piece of the workplace as something that inhibits or impedes what their people are trying to achieve.
These are companies at the front edge of innovation in product design and development, creative engineering, corporate marketing, and advanced manufacturing. Not far behind them, beginning to ask similar, but softer, questions are companies in industries like finance, healthcare and insurance who are now feeling the rumble of disruption heading their way.
The discussions we have with them are not about binary choices. These companies are sophisticated and informed. They appreciate that the subject is not open versus closed. They understand that a high-performing workplace is designed and operates like a platform, richly resourced and friction-free. So their filter on workplace design, their curiosity about space, is not about things but about interactions. Doors, assigned workstations, limitations on choice of tools, and restrictions on the configuration of team space are not in our conversations because they are not subjects that advance agile, dynamic, learning interactions.
Among the most important interactions in the workplace are those between managers and team members. For a long time, however, managers have been the most resistant to change, the most passionate about the need for a door. Their rationalizations included confidentiality in conversations, disciplinary responsibilities, sensitivity of information, need for uninterrupted focus, and more.
Much of their behavior, and the shaper of their expectations, rises from the ways that managers have been trained and the roles they have traditionally been given. But now, as companies change shape to more dynamically meet the demand of a more fluid and uncertain environment, manager behavior needs to change.
What does this have to do with space? Well, we of course know that space shapes behavior and defines culture. We have also suggested that every door in a workplace may cost a million bucks. Yes, partly in construction, but mostly in constriction — the imposition of a threshold slowing the movement of information, the creation of footprint hierarchy that made space a goal rather than role, and other miscues about company purpose and performance.
Let’s look at the five shifts that Joseph Pistrui and Dino Dimov outline in their admonition that “The Role of A Manager Has to Change in 5 Key Ways.”
From directive to instructive – “What will be needed from managers is to think differently about the future in order to shape the impact AI will have on their industry. This means spending more time exploring the implications of AI, helping others extend their own frontiers of knowledge, and learning through experimentation to develop new practices.”
From restrictive to expansive – “Managers today need to draw out everyone’s best thinking. This means encouraging people to learn about competitors old and new, and to think about the ways in which the marketplace is unfolding.”
From exclusive to inclusive – “Managers need to be bringing a diverse set of thinking styles to bear on the challenges they face. Truly breakaway thinking gets its spark from the playful experimentation of many people exchanging their views, integrating their experiences, and imagining different futures”
From repetitive to innovative – Managers tend “to focus only on what they know — on perpetuating the status quo — at the expense of what is possible. Organizations need managers to think much more about innovating beyond the status quo – and not just in the face of challenges.”
From problem solver to challenger – “The job of a manager must be permanently recast from an employer to an entrepreneur. Being entrepreneurial is a mode of thinking, one that can help us see things we normally overlook and do things we normally avoid. Thinking like an entrepreneur simply means to expand your perception and increase your action — both of which are important for finding new gateways for development.”
As you read through those shifts in managers’ roles – exploring, learning, extending, experimenting, encouraging, playing, integrating, imagining, acting – think also about the roles that the design of space can play in enabling those behaviors and nurturing those shifts in operations and culture. What role does a wall play in activating those shifts? Does a door help or hinder the engagement of managers in these ways? When managers move from supervision to activation, what kind of workplace will their teams seek?
When you start your workplace design project, move away from counting cubicles, creating offices, and measuring space. Think instead about the design of the workplace as a richly resourced platform that encourages creative interactions. That may be the most effective strategy in attaining the vision that Pistrui and Dimov outline –
“We want managers to become truly human again: to be people who love to learn and love to teach, who liberate and innovate, who include others in the process of thinking imaginatively, and who challenge everyone around them to create a better business and a better world. This will ensure that organizations do more than simply update old ways of doing things with new technology, and find ways to do entirely new things going forward.”