Recent analysis shows that over 70% of all offices have an open plan – no doors, no cubicles, and relatively few conference rooms. Open offices have been around since the 1950’s. The intent of this office configuration has been to increase opportunities for collaboration and casual exchange of ideas. In many cases that has been true. We've known since the days of "tiger teams" that putting a project team together in one place can efficiently produce innovative results. It is also great for the boss with a command and control mindset monitoring workflow. But how does this apply to a 21st century workplace?
The architectural firm Gensler reported, in a research study involving over 2,000 knowledge workers, that 95% of respondents said that they need solitude to produce their best work. However, only 41% say they have access to private workspaces. With more and more of our team's work being produced with remote teammates, how does the open office impact our ability to talk openly and routinely collaborate? What is the impact on our ability to share ideas during our virtual team meetings? We know this is a key to building trust in virtual teams.
During a leadership program I was conducting, a Vice President of Operations complained that he gets limited engagement in his virtual meetings, even when he knows people have input or updates to share with the team. People were not speaking up and even those who did sometimes sounded indistinct and far away. The company converted all of their offices to an open configuration a few years ago. There are no private offices and very limited conference room availability. He asked several of his team what they saw as the biggest impediment to participating during meetings? No surprise. Lack of secluded or quiet space.
For residents of the "open" office environment, virtual meetings present two big issues.
- One, attendees don't want to make noise, talk too loud and disturb uninvolved colleagues.
- Two, they don't want to share information about staff challenges, team performance, or other sensitive information in a public setting.
As a leader, your job is to make sure that the entire team is positioned with the right resources, connections, and opportunities to share opinions and ideas with the entire team. Short of redesigning your office space (which some companies are doing right now), how can you promote effective sharing of ideas and getting the business outcomes you need during your virtual team meetings?
Team meetings are rarely a surprise. If there is limited conference room space, make sure everyone books rooms for the longest calendar window you can reserve. Minimally, everyone should identify several options for having access to secluded places to join the meeting.
Most companies allow employees to work one or more days a week out of a home office. Recommend that team members plan an off-site workday when meetings occur.
Sometimes there is nothing you can do about being in a noisy place or sharing a workspace with someone during a virtual meeting. I've been in meetings where attendees are calling in from trade shows, cars, and airports. Get a good headset with a noise-canceling microphone. In the office, they can serve as a “Do Not Disturb” sign! One or two people around you? You can also recommend that people sitting close to you wear headphones to reduce your impact on them.
Adjust the agenda
Often a sensitive or confidential issue needs to be discussed and the key person can't get access to a room with a door. You may have to readjust your agenda and schedule another meeting to pursue. More meetings probably don’t sound great, but this is a better solution than limited interaction resulting in no decision or a poor one.
It’s key to your success that everyone contribute fully and have access to the capabilities of all team members to achieve your business outcomes. Take control of the “virtual” office environment to maximize engagement and productivity.