One of the casualties of cost cutting and improvements in technology is the office with companies preferring to move to next-generation workplace designs. Gone are the days of heading into the boss’s office, sitting in a sunken chair at the oversized desk that many leaders had to signify their importance, wondering what they want to talk to you about now! I must admit it was a little intimidating to the junior person!
The office was certainly recognized as one of the signs that you’d made it as a leader! You have privacy, a bar fridge and more than likely a view. Times have changed, particularly for large business, with offices demolished to make way for the open office environment and everyone in together. A meeting needs to be held in a meeting room that is normally a little like a fish bowl as others can see in! The open working environment is meant to encourage teamwork and relationship building, removing silos. I have worked in both environments and there are pro’s and con’s to both as with any situation. My question is, does the open office environment hinder leadership?
In the open environment, the leader does not have privacy and are fair game to others agenda. People can see that you are free (perception of course!), at your desk and approach! Interruptions are increased, privacy decreased, noise levels are heightened and there is always the person with the really loud voice seated nearby challenging concentration levels. On the other hand, you can be seen as more part of the team, you can get a feel for the productivity and efficiency levels of your team and be part of conversations and fun that may be had within the team and extend to other teams that may be in your office space. A sneaky benefit is that you can overhear conversations that may be held with clients or stakeholders, measuring service levels while just doing your day-to-day tasks.
For me the challenge for leaders being in the open environment are many. Here are a few that I’ve experiences and observed:
· There is a risk to the control freak leader being too participative and involved in the team function, directing rather than empowering. Using phrases such as ‘don’t do it that way, do it this way’. The control freak may be a little too interested in the day to day functions of the work place, rather than supporting the processes and systems, hindering team work and communication that builds comradely amongst a team. They may be perceived as the hungry hawk, watching and waiting for their next prey!
· There is also the risk that the leader is interrupted way too much by people, affecting concentration levels and the decision making process which does require strong focus for optimum outcomes. The risk is the leader chooses to come in early or leave late when the office is quieter. This can impact on the life balance of the leader, as they will be working some longer hours.
· The team can become very reliant on the ‘boss’ being there and fire questions at them rather than thinking a problem through to solution. Therefore, the leader is spoon-feeding the team hindering growth.
· There is the risk that the lines of command become blurred, that the leader morphs into another team member. It’s so important for a leader to be the leader and not risk being seen as one of the team. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that your team report into you, they are accountable to you and you set the direction. You are not their mate as a leader. You are often seen as the role model. A critical point is when you need to have a difficult conversation or make a hard decision that will impact on the team and business overall. This is when you can experience a range of issues when you are seen as the mate.
There are of course solutions to all of these problems and it’s how the leader communicates, educates and operates when faced with the ‘open office’ conundrum. The leader needs to ensure they are clear with the team and others on the ‘rules of engagement’ and be mindful of the challenges they will now face into. They will need to change the way they function and how they communicate. It all comes down to change management, and if a considered approach is taken, it can certainly work in a leaders favour.