Open offices or more walls? … The Washington Post says Google’s got it wrong

Here’s an interesting thought to start the year: The Washington Post says Google has got it wrong – we need less open offices and more walls.

This is all part of creating a sense of belonging through work environments.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it: less walls means more openness. But like many belonging challenges, designing the right office space is more complex than the surface solutions.

The trade-offs between transparency and intrusion, camaraderie and noise, shared accountability and personal privacy – it’s a cultural minefield. One person’s openness can be another person’s restraint.

The article’s author, Lindsey Kaufman, talks of her experience in a New York advertising agency.

“Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private.”

The environment we work in, and the opportunity for both collective and individual spaces, has a big influence on our sense of belonging. And yet we can take it for granted, this powerful symbol of an organisation: “it’s just how we do things”.

Workplace environment is one of the parameters we assess in our Belonging Audits. It has a big impact on culture and behaviour.

One creative agency I worked in had a particularly lively culture and high level of camaraderie. It was tough to find a quiet place to think – which undermined our  purpose: to solve problems.

As one colleague bemoaned:

“Sometimes the hardest place to work – is work.”

Yet it was culturally unacceptable to work at home.

“How do I know you’re working if you’re not here?”

“Er… because I’ll do the work. It’ll get done and it’ll better.”

The compromise became vague diary slots with ‘meetings’, popping out, furtively, to a café in order to think and write.

The 21st Century business luxury may be less about technology, funky slides or ping pong tables – and more about available space.

To make the best of what you have, here are a few points of good practice we’ve seen in action:

  1. Provide different kinds of spaces for different tasks and contexts. Individual or team working, informal and formal meetings, open and private.
  2. Create standing-up meeting points in front of a board: takes less space than conference rooms, keeps people alert and focused.
  3. Preserve a quiet space with old-fashioned library ssshh-rules.
  4. Stay well ahead of guidelines on proximity of desks and people:don’t keep squishing more people in.
  5. Respect a polite ‘please don’t interrupt me’ code: headphones, desk flags, urgent messages only via paper notes in envelope – all work better than grumpiness.

The work environment is just one of the many ways to build a sense of belonging. Get it right and belonging can help your business – but if you misfire it can also harm.

We’ll be looking at this, and the other parameters of belonging, in our seminar on 11 February 

‘The business power of belonging: how it helps and harms organisations’

Come and join us to explore more.

Belonging Space helps leaders create a sense of belonging in their organisations.