Open Workspaces: How to make them work

Open Office EnvironmentOpen workspaces – do they work or not? I have been exploring the pros and cons for some time.  I have visited a lot of open work spaces as part of my writing on collaboration and I am writing this post following a day spent hot desking in the open workspace at Hairy Lemon. Hairy Lemon is the quirky, innovative digital company that built my website.

 Over the last six months I have talked with both Board Chair Carl Pascoe, and Chief Lemon Sue Wilkinson about the Hairy Lemon way and share some of my understandings here:

Why have an open workspace?

The folk at Hairy Lemon believe that a transparent environment with everyone having full information means better and faster decision making and a healthier workplace. This also creates less ‘noise’ because it takes each individual’s paranoid imagination out of play! There is a focus on people being involved, so care is taken to consider the pace at which new information is given to avoid information overload. The open workspace means no-one has a separate office, but there are plenty of ways that people can have privacy – from smaller meeting rooms to…earbuds.

How do you choose people who are a ‘fit’ for Hairy Lemon?

There is a set of competencies used to get the right fit. These include:

  • Personal Resilience
  • Ability to work with others
  • Achievement focus
  • Problem solving
  • Service to others
  • Technical skills

So yes, technical skills are on the list. These vertical skills  are related to industry knowledge and the expertise in one or more areas of work. But to thrive in an open workspace you need a whole lot of horizontal skills – those that connect and weave people together.

At Hairy Lemon staff are not necessarily working in functional spaces and they move around every six months. This is a company that wants to challenge people to work outside their silos and to be flexible enough to work in the fast paced, multi-disciplined world of the future.

How do you support new staff to work in an open workspace?

At Hairy Lemon there are a range of strategies used to support newcomers to an open environment: throwing them in at the deep end and encouraging them to seek support when drowning; direct and open feedback given unconstrained by any fear of damaging the relationship; continually keeping an eye on each individual and developing responses to them at each point; having their six monthly reviews undertaken by their peers; the CEO actively relinquishing almost all of her positional power through pushing decisions back to the affected individual.

The Hairy Lemon Environment

At Hairy Lemon Headquarters you can tell that design matters. The spaces are flexible and provide for both group interaction and individual work flow.

A kitchen provides a great environment for gathering. Throughout the organisation there are sayings and ideas that reinforce the culture. Little blackboards provide a place to share ‘Lemon Kudos’. Visual task boards show management of projects. There are lockers for those who need them. A plant wall features along one wall. Nearby there are two pods for small group meetings and larger meeting rooms in a more formal setting. These can be booked and the booking details (who, how long etc) are displayed digitally outside each space. In one pod two staff members are working together, focused on sharing ideas on a big screen.

Culture and leadership are designed intentionally at Hairy Lemon. CEO, Sue Wilkinson, regularly shares ideas and readings with the team. These aren’t just about the latest technological trends. Hairy Lemoners are just as likely to be talking about the leadership and change myths of Jim Collins. Sue and her team constantly share ideas and challenge each other’s thinking. I found it very refreshing.

I have read a lot of articles for and against open workspaces. They may not suit everyone, but when I read of the negatives they are often about the way people behave in the spaces and not about the spaces themselves. It is the culture of the organisation and how it is led that is fundamental. I really like the journey Hairy Lemon is on. The leaders are clear about the ‘why’ of their work and the open workspace is just one way in which this is demonstrated.

3 comments on “Open Workspaces: How to make them work
  1. Thanks Colin. It’s interesting to note that many of the government departments moving back into the central city are more open in design. Their success will be about involvement of people in the design, how the soft systems are developed and how leaders support and maintain a culture of collaboration, trust and personalisation.

  2. Cheryl
    Interesting reading – thanks for sharing. I am still dubious about ability to directly transfer this ethos to schools with MLEs. The MoE is in my opinion pushing everyone headlong into MLEs without good data. Why has it not been more effectively trialled with good data published for all to see? It doesn’t work in all work environments where one can expect a far greater degree of personal maturity and focus. How then for adolescents who are still struggling to define themselves in so many ways?

    It works in some workplaces but not all, so the expectation that it will work in all school environments is perhaps more than a little optimistic? I support innovation, but surely not system wide until there is at least a modicum of good data that it has a positive impact? How many teachers grasped learning styles on the basis of no good data, and only what seemed like common sense, only to discover that the whole idea is lacking any basis in fact at all?

    What are your thoughts? Where am I going wrong LOL?

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