• Boomer Consulting, Inc.

Workplace flexibility for improved collaboration

There have been many ideas to help increase collaboration within offices in recent history. Open offices, collaboration tools and remote work, for example, continue to increase in popularity. This often comes with what we call “buzzword bingo” – the benefits may sound great at the outset but seem lacking as the new ideas are implemented.

This article talks about the relationships that seem to drive greater collaboration & flexibility. It offers some ideas to help you overcome issues as you either plan new space or look at extending your office outside of the normal conventions of four walls. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some recent research and thinking to find correlations that we can use to improve our businesses.

Open offices decrease face to face communication

A recent study looked open offices and how they affect personal interaction within workplaces. As many of you know, open offices are supposed to increase the collaborative work and offer opportunities for water cooler conversations to happen, thereby increasing the effectiveness of each individual. It’s also a great way to reduce the average square footage per employee. It’s a great win-win, right?

In a recent study conducted by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban and funded by the Harvard Business School, two large Fortune 500 multinationals were evaluated as they transitioned from more conventional office space to open office floor plans. Using a device that monitored both location and whether an individual talked (or didn’t talk,) data was collected to see how the transition affected face to face conversations.

The results were quite fascinating. “Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction.” (source 1)

The study, as well as many commentaries on it, commented on the fact that open office floor plans may actually counteract the very principle they try to improve – open collaboration.

Remote workers often feel ostracized from in office colleagues

Another solution to expanding workplace flexibility is remote work. In this instance, I am specifically talking about those employees who work part of all of their time away from a primary office. In addition, the office is where the bulk of the employees are located.

In a study by VitalSmarts, 1,153 employees were polled, many of the respondents who worked from home part or full time felt that their fellow coworkers did not treat them evenly. In fact, many indicators of trust and collaboration were worse for remote employees. (source 2)

Are apps the answer?

In many circles, the idea of adding group chat, AI, bots and improved video conferencing to solve communication hurdles is the answer to all of the above problems. Although I use and encourage these advances to help improve business operations, I think they still miss the core of why open offices decrease face to face conversations and remote workers feel less trust.

Most of the solutions mentioned so far address the symptoms behind a lack of trusted teamwork. I imagine that the initial design of open office floor plans or a tool like Slack (group chat) were addressing real business issues. In the long term almost all solutions fall prey to a simple problem in business – there’s not enough time to see what the problem really is. It’s much easier to listen to someone who has a solution and just use their expertise to fix what’s wrong.

Building a strong foundation for success

There are some very significant choices that any business needs to make to be successful. If the basics are not done well, a business will simply fail, and no open office or tool or workplace flexibility option will help them succeed.

L. Gary Boomer coined the term Think. Plan. Grow.™ many years ago to show that the long term vision and planning lead to growth. You have to know who you are in order to see how you can help other businesses.

This is the big picture answer to why some open offices work well, and why some remote workers feel valued. These businesses start from a strong core and work from there to solve problems, not find solutions. For those of you who’ve read this far and don’t have a strong strategic plan, I’d highly encourage you to get one.

Build with nuts and bolts, not tape

However, many of you may not be in a position to drive this kind of change through your firm. In this instance, I would highly recommend that you think of your firm, in your position, as a place where strong structures survive and duct tape solutions only last so long.

In both the study on open offices as well as the study on remote work, the recommendations to address the issues presented all focused on strong teamwork. This can happen at the organizational level, but I wo