Open Office Spaces May Be “the Worst,” Now What?

Thank you CBS Sunday Morning’s Faith Salie for your commentary, “An Open Secret: Open Office Plans Are the Worst.” The segment was important because it reported the results of a Harvard Business School study that, because it was released over the summer, didn’t get as much coverage as it should have given what it found–open office workspaces (as currently implemented) don’t achieve the promised gains in collaboration and interaction. 

In fact, according to the research, going to an open office configuration has just the opposite effect, “open office triggered the human response to socially withdraw and interact over email and IM.” Over the years, in addition to the tendency to use technology to communicate, I’ve seen people do the following when there are fewer walls at work: 

  • Setting alarms to get up an hour or two earlier in order to get focused work done before going into the office. 
  • Engaging in an ongoing complex, and often unsuccessful, rule-setting process that tried to clarify norms of behavior that would satisfy everyone’s preferred work style. For example, if you want to discuss an issue with more than one person for longer than 15 minutes, take it to a “collaborative workspace” (which was either booked by another group, or occupied by someone who didn’t want to hear your discussion). 
  • Milling hoards in the elevator banks or hallways quietly talking into their phones often with their hands cupped over their mouths. 
  • Even standing up and sharing in a meeting that because they are more introverted and could get nothing done in the new open office they were considering filing an Americans with Disabilities Act claim (true story!). 

Not particularly positive, collaborative behavior.  

However, as the segment also points out, open offices allow organizations to put more people in the same or less space. It saves money. Which is why, while I agree open workspaces are not optimal the way they are currently implemented, they aren’t going away. So, what do we do now, especially since early indications are that the newest members of the workforce, Gen-Z, may prefer more privacy at work than their supposedly open office-friendly Millennial colleagues? 

Start by agreeing that organizations aren’t completely off-base to rethink workspace. We often hear from clients that their space utilization analysis finds a large percentage of desks unoccupied on a given day.  Recently, in one case, it was 30%. 

It makes sense to optimize those unused offices and desks; however, the challenge is how to optimize that space without the unintended productivity and employee engagement loses offset cost savings. 

Answer: Instead of open workspaces, build flexible work cultures, where the type of workspace—onsite, remote, open, collaborative, private—is chosen based the task at hand. The focus is on the work, and how, when and where it is done most productively, not the space. 

For example, we’ve worked with companies that have retained a large portion of onsite open space but made that space just one location which people could choose to do their work. Depending upon the type of job they have and the specific task they need to complete at a particular time, people flexibly pick the optimal space within which to do it. It could be from a spot in the open office, or at another space onsite (e.g. bookable shared office or conference room or cafeteria), space in another corporate location, remotely from home, or remotely from the library or coffeeshop. What’s really popular are little onsite, phone-booth-like rooms which are essentially tiny, mobile private offices. 

With that extra degree of control and flexibility, the challenges of an open office are less daunting, and the collegial aspects can be appreciated and used.  If private phone calls need to be made or reports completed that require unbroken attention, the employee may choose to work remotely or book a private space (assuming there are enough, which there often aren’t). However, if there’s a project that would be completed more efficiently if everyone is in the same place, a team may choose to be onsite and together in the open office. 

The key to success is training everyone—supervisors, teams, and individual employees—how to plan, leverage and coordinate where and when they will work most effectively.  And give them to tools to support that sharing, booking and coordination. This is where most organizations fall short. 

In contrast, in the Harvard study, employees went from assigned cubicles to assigned seats onsite in a large open room of desks and monitors that they were expected to work in every day. This is the way many organizations transition their people to open workspaces and the result can be all of the negative outcomes listed above.

Yes, open offices, as currently implemented, can be the worst; however, they probably aren’t going away. Smart employers incorporate them into a broader culture of flexibility that allows people to choose where they work best based on what they need to accomplish.

Click HERE to be added to the Flex Strategy Group Newsletter and receive periodic updates and insights from Cali Williams Yost.

Tips to Manage Accessibility and Responsiveness at Work

From the extremes of Millennial/Gen-Z #hustle culture to the pending “Right to Disconnect” legislation in New York City, we continue to grapple with how to set better boundaries around, and within, our jobs. 

Clocks and walls no longer tell us where work ends, and the other parts of life begin. Back in the day, we didn’t need to be intentional about communicating how, when, and where we worked. Being in the office nine-to-five, Monday-Friday, was the general rule-of-thumb most followed. Not anymore.  Now, it’s potentially 24/7, work anytime and anywhere. 

That’s why employees, teams, and supervisors need to master a new set of skills and tools that support the ongoing clarification of expectations related to accessibility and responsiveness. The solution isn’t one-size-fits-all. It will vary by circumstance and person. 

Here are three get-started tips that can help colleagues, clients, and others connect while carving out space for focused work and managing personal well-being. 

Go Beyond the Typical “Out of the Office” Auto-Reply

We have so many ways to communicate—email, instant message, text, mobile phone, Slack notifications, etc.  Let’s start with email since, according to our research, it remains the primary communication tool for the majority of full-time employees. 

Most people consistently set an auto-reply message when they are out of the office (OOO). That autoresponder usually includes information about when the person will return and who to contact for a more rapid response. But, this typical “OOO” doesn’t adequately convey the more nuanced information required to manage accessibility expectations in a flexible work culture. 

Consider more specific, instructive email auto-replies such as: 

  • “Working Remotely – I will respond to your message as soon as I can. Please call or text me at 333-333-3333 if you require more immediate assistance.” The need for this type of auto-response depends upon your work environment. In practice, working remotely should make no difference in how or when you respond making this auto-reply unnecessary. However, if people still don’t quite get that remote working means you are working, it limits some of the possible doubt that can slip in when you aren’t in the office and don’t respond immediately. 
  • “Focused Working – I am working but only checking email periodically. I can be reached by mobile or text 333-333-3333. Otherwise, I will respond as soon as I can.”
  • “Traveling – I am traveling and will not be reachable until ‘X’. I will respond as soon as I can. Please contact _____ for more immediate assistance.” Yes, you are out of the office, but you are working so expect a reply when you are accessible again. 
  • “PTO – I will be out of the office on PTO (you don’t need to say sick or on vacation) and will respond when I get back to the office. Please contact______ for more immediate assistance.” You are not in the office, and you are not available. That doesn’t mean you aren’t checking messages, but you’ve set a clear expectation you are not going to reply. This is an important boundary if you are truly going to disconnect when you are on vacation or are sick, which, according to a recent New York Times article is a challenge. 

Here’s an example of a creative “OOO” response from a New York Magazine feature on Krista Tippett, the host of the popular NPR radio show/podcast On Being, “When you email Tippett, you get an auto-reply that says, ‘I’m in year two of my vow to forsake hurry as a way to move through my days.’ She tends to reply the same day, regardless.” As the leader, Tippett can use whatever auto-reply message she wants (I’m curious what other members of her staff do); however, it gets the point across that, while she is still reviewing messages, the response may not be immediate.

Need some help composing more nuanced and informative email auto-replies? You can find inspiration from the Slack app’s varied status options:

Check in frequently and recalibrate

During an accessibility and responsiveness exercise we facilitated with a team, an employee asked, “If I choose to bring a company laptop home to catch up on work, am I expected to respond to a customer email that I receive after hours?” The answer from the group was “Yes, sometimes you do.” In this group’s particular business and for this exempt worker, sometimes there are projects and issues that require work outside of the traditional business day. In those cases, yes, you would have to respond after hours. But when those projects are completed and it’s back to business as usual, then no.

The choice comes down to professional judgment; however, sometimes it’s difficult for employees to know when they can or must modify their level of accessibility and responsiveness. Leaders should check in and make sure their boundaries match the task at hand.  

The biggest mistake I see leaders make is they think, “Oh, they know.” Assume they don’t and check-in, especially when you notice levels of after-hours communications that aren’t required to get the job done effectively. For those who think it’s more convenient to send or respond to non-urgent work-related communications in the morning, at night or on the weekends, encourage the use of the “Send Later” function in email or make it clear you don’t expect a response to anything not marked “urgent/priority.”

Don’t make immediate response the standard 

Try this thought experiment. Imagine the people you work with are in the office together, at the same time, every day. Are you able to immediately find and get a response from everyone when you reach out? No, you’re not. People are in meetings. They go to the bathroom. They go to lunch. They run an errand. It’s the same when people work flexibly. 

But for some reason, there’s a tendency to make anything less than an immediate response, all the time, a sign of trouble or even abuse. Not only is that unrealistic, but it undermines the trust and shared accountability that is the foundation of flexible work team success.   

For peace of mind that you can reach someone right away if necessary, we encourage teams to create a snapshot of everyone’s mobile phone numbers. One client took it a step further and encouraged everyone to screenshot the grid and keep it on their phones for easy access in one place. 

These are a few basic steps that a team can follow to set better boundaries. By clarifying expectations related to accessibility and responsiveness, you minimize misunderstandings, doubts, stress, and burnout. Jobs in today’s flexible work culture will get done effectively no matter how, when or where people are doing them.

What are some of the ways you and your colleagues set boundaries around, and within, your work? How do you clarify when you can be reached and how rapidly you will respond?

Click HERE to be added to the Flex Strategy Group Newsletter and receive periodic updates and insights from Cali Williams Yost.


Fast Company: Post-White House Forum: Where Does Flexibility Go From Here…

There’s no doubt in my mind that the universe has a sense of humor.  A couple of months ago, I solemnly swore that I would 100% disconnect from work when we went on vacation during my children’s Spring Break.  No email (if at all possible), no twitter, no blogging—nothing but focused time with my family.

Then, as if to test the limits of my resolve, The White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility was scheduled smack dab in the middle of my vacation last week!   Let’s just say that last Wednesday, it was all I could do not to sneak a glimpse at the live feed on The White House website.  But I resisted and am now catching up on all that transpired at this remarkable event.

I’ve read the Council of Economic Advisers “Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility” report as well as a number of blog posts about the forum written by participants, many of whom are colleagues I greatly admire.  Here are links to some of my favorites:

My takeaways are as follows…

Thank you to the First Family and The White House for an important symbolic boost for flexibility. I agree with Wharton’s Stew Friedman when he says this is a, “Symbolic moment that signified, at last, a new era in which we are really talking and thinking differently about work and the relationship with the rest of our lives.”  Symbolism is a powerful driver of any broad change initiative.  And it spoke volumes to have the leader of the free world stand up, with his professional wife, in The White House and say, “this is important.”

Job well done, my esteemed work+life industry colleagues.  Job well done. Unless you’ve been in the work+life field from more than a decade, and had an opportunity to meet and talk with some of the pioneers who started this movement from scratch, you might not appreciate what a full circle moment this event was for many of the participants in the Forum.  Trust me, none of them would have imagined that someday they would be at The White House.  But everyday, day-in-and-day-out they forged ahead.  Let me take this opportunity to applaud them all and to acknowledge how very much they all deserve this victory.

Now, where do we go from here with flexibility? No doubt the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility was a mountain top moment that deserves one more, “Hooray!” and a little victory dance.  But everyone will agree that there’s still a great deal of work to do before flexibility in how, when and where work is done and life is managed is an integral part of every business’ operating model, and every employee’s day-to-day reality. Here are some next steps that I’d like to see: (Click here for more)

Fast Company: Why Every CEO Regrets Not Attending the Psychologically Healthy Workplaces Conference

I recently attended and spoke at the APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Conference.  The goal of the conference as outlined by the APA’s visionary Assistant Executive Director, Dr. David Ballard (who also happens to have an MBA) was to celebrate and learn from,

“Employers who understand the link between employee well-being and organizational performance strive to maintain a work environment characterized by openness, fairness, trust and respect, even when difficult actions were required.  These employers are positioned for success in the economic recovery and will have a distinct competitive advantage in their ability to attract and retain the very best employees.”

The conference was organized around the core elements of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Model:

Over the past few days, other speakers and attendees have shared their insightful overviews of the conference in the following posts:

My main takeaway from the two days was simply that…every CEO should regret not attending, both professionally and personally.

Had they participated, they would have learned about strategies to resolve many of their organization’s most vexing bottom line challenges—employee stress, lack of employee engagement, high cost of health care, truly leveraging diversity, etc—issues that directly impact growth and profitability.

CEOs would have heard the former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Alexis M. Herman, in her introduction of the winners of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award point out the three main challenges facing companies as we move into a “do more with less” era:

  • More role ambiguity as everyone takes on more roles and responsibilities which increases the level of job stress.
  • Increased inter-generational worker tension as Boomers work longer, but graduates can’t find work.
  • Increased worker polarization and isolation as workers who lose jobs can’t find work at the same level of income or status.

But perhaps most importantly, CEOs would have seen how they benefit personally from strategies that create a psychologically healthier workplace.  They would realize that they’re not alone in the isolation of overwhelming work+life challenges and stress which are outcomes of a work+life fit model that no longer suits even for those at senior levels.

A recent article, “Why Being a CEO Should Come with a Health Warning,” highlights the research conducted by Steve Tappin for his book, The Secrets of CEOs. From his interviews with 150 CEOs, Tappin learned that: (click here for more)

Live Blogging from FWI Work Life Legacy Awards

(Note: Please forgive typos, etc. –I’m typing real-time and fast!)

Immersion Learning Experience — Conversation with Ellen Galinsky, President of FWI and Kaye Foster-Cheek, VP of HR of Johnson & Johnson

Discussion:  How Work Life Realities Changing for Men

How have organizations changed the marketing of flexibility so that men feel comfortable using it?

Example:  Sara Lee marketed flexibility through their younger employees/  Ernst & Young conducted a survey and found everyone wanted flexibility and emphasized the use of day-to-day flexibility for everyone

Now, dealing with jeopardy and risk of using flexibility in this economic environment:  Merck–distinguished from day-to-day and formal flexible work, a global survey found that men were more likely to take advantage of occasional flex now dealing with how to get more men involved and to make it more global.  So they are reaching out across organization and leveraging success stories of men using flexibility.  Target leaders and what are you seeing and what are your barriers. …JP Morgan Chase with regard to people be afraid of using flexibility, in two areas in finance the senior leadership initiated “Change One Thing” urging people to make a small change in how they are working.  It started in December and now they are following up to encourage more use

Back to National Study:  Fathers are experiencing more work-lif e conflict than mothers.

Moving on now to Aging Workforce and Challenges

Kaye Foster-Cheek:  There are difference in the generations, but there are  a lot of similarities.  J&J brings generations together to listen to each other.  Understand what we have in common versus what is different.  The economy is going to impact on progression in the labor market.  So it’s important to focus on what is similar.   For example, defined benefit pension plan is overwhelming appealing to the Gen-X and Gen-Y which was surprising.  The reason was the volatility in the market, but also the commitment the company is making to the employees.

Another interesting finding;  Gen-X, Gen-Y wanted flexibility beyond care giving, but also to find time to fit in volunteer activities

Kathy Lynch from Center for Aging  and Work at Boston College points out the need to look not only at generations but life-stage.

Question: Wondering if this has to do with differences if people are executives or not?  Executives just assume that this is the “way work is done.”  Look at National Study Data to determine if there is difference in the way manage people…Data finds there is no difference by level or generation in wanting flexibility to manage work and life.

One of the key variables is socio-economic and is key to opening flexibility up to all levels in the organization.  As we open up flexibility to everyone, this will mean more flexibility for lower-wage, non-executive workforce.   This will be one of the factors when thinking of flexibility as a business issue and not just something that nice companies do.

IBM–Executives are role-models, so glad that the data shows no difference between levels because executives in our company are setting the tone for the use of flexibility.  With regard to Millennials, they are just more vocal about asking…but we all want the same things across generations.  From an IBM perspective, we’ve used flexibility to facilitate flexibility.  In her team globally, 50% work from home, and don’t care where they are located.

Trend #4:  Elder care is growing

Trend #5:  Number of hours worked have grown.

Trend #6: Health rating improving for people under 30 / Minor problems with health increasing, and sleep problems are pervasive / one in five receive treatment for high blood pressure

J&J–really focusing on employee health.  Has a global tobacco free workplace and supports to help employees give up smoking and offer fitness centers and on-site clinics to help employees.  Comprehensive approach to health and wellness.  Measures that they track–tobacco, cholesterol–all improved.  Inactivity unfortunately is still a problem.

What companies are NOT doing well–Question raised: employers have been allowed to insert ourselves into employees life with technology. So is that one of the reasons that people are not as healthy?

Kellogg has summer work hours from approximately May to November where Friday afternoon off if completed their work to a supervisor’s satisfaction.  Has changed companies culture.

(NOTE:  Ellen used Work-Life Fit, to describe outcome on a slide–Yeah! So glad they are not using balance)

The Immersion Learning Experience is wrapping up…moving to cocktail hour before the dinner presentation where Legacy Awards will be announced.  (Click here for live post from dinner)

Fast Company: Actually, Millennials Do Expect Work Flexibility–Reinterpreting PWC’s Survey

“We do not expect work flexibility” That’s the headline from PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PWC) Millenials at Work global survey of 4,271 recent graduates.  Wow.  A strong statement, and one that completely contradicts what I find in my work, which is that millennials not only want work+life flexibility, they expect it.

The summary of findings concludes that, “Although the millennials seem to indicate flexibility is not expected, we did however receive many comments about wanting more flexibility.”  What?  Which is it?  Something wasn’t adding up.  And might organizations take these findings from the well-respected PWC as license to stop focusing on greater work+life flexibility, especially in this economic environment?

The PWC researchers attributed the difference between the quantitative findings and qualitative comments to the fact that, “Perhaps the millennials do not feel that total flexibility is a realistic possibility, even though it is something they might desire. We also believe that their expectations may change as they get older and the need for greater flexibility for example to look after family members may become more of a priority.”

After digging further, I realized the difference between my understanding of millennials’ expectation of flexibility and PWC’s understanding related to how we defined “work flexibility”…(Click here for more)

It’s an “Everyone” Issue, Part II — How Recognizing This Fact Will Help Working Mothers More

For a long time, I’ve challenged the conventional wisdom that work+life is primarily a working mothers’ issue with the proven fact that it’s an “everyone” issue. But recent articles about working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers have convinced me that not only must we recognize once and for all that work+life “fit” isn’t just a working mothers’ issue, BUT that in doing so, we will actually help mothers more. I say this as a working mother with two small children who faces these challenges daily.

This realization hit me while reading the 3/2/06 New York Times article about the stall in the number of mothers returning to the workplace after having children. A former high-tech business development executive with three children was interviewed and talked about how “duped” she felt by her expectations about working after having children. I started thinking about other big work+life “fit” transitions women and men experience over the course of their life and career. And how their expectations related to these experiences are also often not aligned with reality, which leads to similar feelings of being “duped.” (more…)