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What the “Open Work Space” Movement Missed*

*And how to resolve it

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We live in a New World of Work. Companies and partnerships are organizing themselves in ways that would have seemed unimaginable even 10 or 20 years ago.

The office spaces of the 1990’s were a direct response to research performed by Christine Congdon, Donna Flynn, and Melanie Redman, of Steelcase in 1980. They conducted studies on what American employees wanted in the workplace and found that more than 50% of employees said they needed more space for direct concentration.

This led to cubicle nation.

Cubicle Nation, as dubbed by Pamela Slim, gave people the walls they craved for peace and direct solitude. Yet by the late ’90s, the trend had reversed: more than 50% of employees said they needed more access to co-workers, and 40% wanted more interaction.

You can guess the outcome.

For the past 15 years, American workplaces have pushed the open work space culture and now, all workers can see each other, run into each other, and drop in on each other at moment’s notice.

An informal survey taken in 2016 found that 58% of high-performing employees (HPEs) needed more quiet spaces for problem-solving – and the majority of them found their workplaces noisy and distracting.

So what has the open work space movement missed?

In trying to address the pendulum shift between cubicle privacy and complete open plan work spaces, today’s leaders are challenging the overly simplistic idea that you should “Build walls to create more privacy. Tear down walls to build more collaboration.”

In fact, they are learning that simple, safe solutions rarely last and rarely give a sound ROI.

Instead, in line with the findings of influential management thinker Peter Drucker, today’s leaders (both the young and the experienced) believe that cultivating community and fostering genuine relationships is something that cannot actually be measured.

Instead, the core of a successful business is in relationships. They’re the foundation of business. Not just of making deals but of changing culture.

Designing Culture for True Openness

A truly open work space does not bring down cubicle walls, but instead, brings down cognitive walls.

We’re wired to hear what we want to hear. We’re also wired to hear one another in biased ways, and we often fail to appreciate the merits in an unfamiliar or threatening idea. These nearly unconscious biases can keep us from recognizing the potential value in someone else’s idea.

Bias in collaboration, it turns out, can be costly to business.

In 1960, Peter Wason coined the phrase “confirmation bias” to describe the human tendency to favor ideas and information that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and desires. While it does not necessarily sound challenging, confirmation bias can inhibit creative collaboration in a few subtle ways.

The results of a study at the University of Chicago and Center for Talent Innovation highlighted this. Workers who feel unchecked biases among peers and supervisors say they are three times more likely to withhold ideas and marketing solutions, and they are three times as likely to be disengaged.

As with the pendulum swing between cubicles and the open-plan, the goal is not to remove biases – even if that were possible. Instead, for true cognitive openness, we can acknowledge our biases and learn to temporarily dissolve them.

Bias dissolution is one of the key functions of our human experience of wonder. Wonder is the singular experience when, even for a fleeting moment, our biased ways of seeing, relating, and creating dissolve so we can see again what is true, real, and beautiful. In doing so, we can see one another for who we are in real and true and, yes, beautiful ways.

This momentary bias dissolution is directly tied to one of what many psychologists have referred to as The Big 5 Personality Traits:

  • Openness to Experience
  • Extroversion
  • Neuroticism
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness

Openness to experience is the one psychological trait that most directly correlates with character strengths such as creativity, wisdom, gratitude, and appreciation.

The good news? You can foster a state of openness. You can train for more openness.

How to design for openness in yourself and in others

If you ask for input, open yourself to receive it

When you’re searching for novel solutions to a problem, it’s often possible to feel yourself shutting down any idea that feels uncomfortable, or challenging.

Pause. Recalibrate.

Instead of looking for answers which confirm what you already know, let your invited collaborator know you’re open to what they’re saying. Invite them to ask you questions out of curiosity or in turn, ask them more open-ended questions to explore possibilities together.

Open yourself to feedback from everyone, not just certain people

It’s only human to form quick judgmental biases towards other people. However, in the workplace, this can become a problem if you are forming assumptions of others that damages your ability to form a team. You may find that your unconscious biases are sizing up another team member, rather than giving them space for their idea.

The next time you’re in a meeting or a collaborative session with a team member, notice if you’re sizing up their ideas. If so, rub your temples – where a closed state literally creates physical tension – and repeat quietly to yourself, “Open up instead of size up.” It works.

Open yourself to your own ideas

Part of the practice of becoming confident in your creativity or thought leadership is trusting your own ideas. Doing so requires you to become more aware of your own thoughts as they flit by like fish in an aquarium.

Before you ask for input from other people on an idea, observe if your inner critic has shut down your own idea. Have you written down the idea in your Idea Daybook? If not, do so. Take just five timed minutes to explore the idea and its possibilities. Doing so seeds the idea in the fertile soil of your unconscious.

Before you ask someone else for input, give your unconscious two days to water it. Follow up with five minutes of writing for each of the following two days – I prefer mornings and evenings before bed where my conscious and unconscious minds communicate more freely. This builds an open trust toward your own thinking and ideas.

If you’re sizing up yourself too rigidly, you’re probably judging other people too harshly.

A smart, whole-hearted, open-minded work culture and culture at large is possible to create. And it’s necessary for our times.

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