Have you ever asked yourself, what you can do to build and improve a positive momentum in the office? Would you agree that in addition to many advantages, modern „team offices” or “open-plan offices” come with a few disadvantages? How can you overcome the drawbacks of mobile, virtual, globally distributed work?
To investigate these questions, there will be a new post series “Moments of Social Density” which will appear irregularly. The posts are intended as inspiration, maybe you can also share experiences or points of view on the Linkedin channel.
The first posts is about deliberately induced breaks. To understand the value of breaks, you need to comprehend some structural characteristics of “team offices” or „open plan spaces” first.
A recent study published by the international facility management organization shows that open office structures are a major trend . Senior leaders are moving to open plan thereby breaking down walls, people are just more visible and approachable. This helps everyone involved.
However some concerns are also highlighted in the study. Among audible distractions and uninvited interruptions, the lack of audible and visual privacy was criticized by almost 1 in 3 interviewees. In open plan offices everyone is on display all the time. For example, coworkers might feel distracted when you have a strong voice and hold long conference calls in the office. Some use a workaround for a quick chat (personal or work related), that is the use of a messaging app. But isn’t it awkward to text your colleague when she or he is in ten meters reach?
There are not so many studies so far, that investigate the change in behavior on how people interact when moving from closed office design to open plan. One study from last year is not very supportive of open plan in terms of fostering interaction . In the investigated case face to face communication went down by about 70%.
Well you could say, it is as it is. What is the point, people still communicate. However the communication is strongly reduced, visual signals, body language, or emotions are stripped out by electronic communication. Those limitations are accepted in order to achieve some privacy for certain interactions.
And first remedies for the lack of privacy are appearing: the reinvention of the cubicle . This is a place to make calls, to hold meetings in smaller groups of up to four people. That fixes some of the issues observed in open plan.
One of the core issues of open plan is, that it encroaches on a basic need of humans: safety. In the case of office environment it is psychological safety. If you are on display all the time, you might avoid actions that would help to foster trust and confidence with your colleagues. You might avoid exchange that is not directly related to your work, but would help others to learn about your interest and thoughts as a professional or private person. You might want to share some private stories with close colleagues, but not with all of them.
How to strengthen bonds and networks
Being open and being partially vulnerable is the only method to bond and to build networks. Colleagues will appreciate and understand your DNA much better. And in case of need they would come back and can contribute to your efforts or trust you more while being engaged in a joint project.
Another side effect of high visibility in open offices is the possibility of unhealthy dominance plays. In addition to official hierarchy, social pressure exists in an informal hierarchy in an open office. Breaking official or unspoken office rules is a widely visible and generally comprehendible method of establishing a rather uncooperative dominance. This impairs psychological safety among others and as a consequence kills productivity and creativity.
How can you counteract those limiting effects of open plan offices? There are many possibilities, but today I would like to point to an intervention that will lift the mood for all colleagues in an office. It is a simple short break with an offering of something to drink and/or a tiny snack.
This can be a spontaneous break. It could also be regular weekly break for all to meet at a certain time. The break can last 20-30min. All colleagues know they can exchange with each other without pushing the projects or tasks forward. It is an invitation to share stories from the personal lives, that people can learn about more aspects of the others and appreciate the different roles everyone plays beyond the office hours.
How can you make the office breaks successful?
How can you make the office breaks successful? Introduce a moment of uncertainty, a surprise. It could be a general or seasonal theme. It could be the kind of food or drink. It could also be a special guest from other parts of the organization or even a friendly customer. This will make the office break more interesting and addictive. You might also celebrate successes or failures of the week, as other companies do it to foster values and culture. But only if you would like to extend the scope from the personal and human level towards the organizational level.
It does not to be a Prosecco break all the time, coffee or tea will do the trick.
How will this help?
How will this help? The break is inviting all colleagues to align and to be with the others to improve chances to connect on a more personal level than the level provided by work related meetings or projects. It will serve as an insurance for keeping good relations and dampen the issues outlined above. Thereby it will help to achieve high productivity, although the break in itself will obviously not contribute much to productivity. What if you solve a long standing problem by joking around? If you are relieved from the pressure of producing ideas or results for a few minutes you are much more likely to encounter new ideas through serendipity.
Just try this and be the first Chief Break Officer (CBO) in your office. Share your experience in the comments below! And sign up for the newsletter.
 Bernstein ES, Turban S. 2018, The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Phil.Trans.R.Soc.B373: 20170239, http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239