Organizations are rushing to implement open office spaces in the hopes of retaining talent, encouraging cross-functional collaboration, enhancing exposure to different kinds of expertise, and accelerating creativity and innovation. Sometimes this works, but often it doesn’t. New research shows that success with open offices may have as much to do with how people feel about the space — something called place identity — as with the space itself. There are three things that leaders can do to increase place identity when moving to open office spaces. Convey the vision for the space and how it aligns with company goals before the move. Convey a positive attitude about the new space once in it. And encourage workers to adapt the space to their needs — give them leeway to personalize it. When leaders communicate the value of the space beforehand, proactively help workers acclimate, and give employees leeway to adapt the space, organizations are much more likely to reap the benefits of the investment in redesigned workspaces.
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Organizations are rushing to implement open office spaces in hopes of retaining talent, encouraging cross-functional collaboration, enhancing exposure to different kinds of expertise, and accelerating creativity and innovation. Sometimes this works, but often it doesn’t. In our research, we discovered that success with open offices may have as much to do with how people feel about the space — something called place identity — as with the space itself. When place identity is higher, employees report more engagement in their work, more communication with their peers, and a stronger connection to the company. Our study uncovers three things that leaders can do to increase place identity when moving to open office spaces.
Organizations such as Google, Facebook, Genentech, IBM, and Microsoft have devoted millions of dollars to the redesign of their workspaces, replacing cubicles and traditional private offices with large open spaces, smaller team spaces for collaborative work, and pods for private conversations. Furniture is adjustable so that it can be moved and modified to meet an employee’s needs and adapt to rapidly changing work demands. The hope is that these spaces will enhance the sharing of ideas, expedite decision making, and engage employees, ultimately driving more-innovative products and services. As Facebook’s Chief People Officer said about the company’s 430,000 square-foot open office design, “It really creates an environment where people can collaborate; they can innovate together. There’s a lot of spontaneity in the way people bump into each other, just a really fun collaborative creative space.”
Despite optimistic assertions about the benefits of open office space, outcomes are mixed. In some cases, open-plan office designs are reported to increase collaboration, employee satisfaction, and communication, but in others these new spaces are criticized for creating distractions, reducing privacy and autonomy, and undermining employee motivation and satisfaction.
In our research, we found that the problem may go beyond the physical features of the space itself, and come down to whether employees feel the space aligns with their self-image and enhances their sense of belonging — their place identity. The concept of place identity was first introduced by environmental psychologists who found, for example, that identifying with a particular national park led to more conservation behaviors, volunteering, and a willingness to pay higher entrance fees.
We examined the roll-out of open office spaces in a global Fortune 500 company. In concert with our coauthors, Sara Vaerlander, Bobbie Thomason, and Heather Altman, we talked with workers and collected survey data from over 300 employees in five different countries – France, Israel, India, the U.S., and China. We discovered that employees who felt a greater sense of place identity (as measured by the degree to which workers perceived the space as being important to them and a meaningful place to work, felt a sense of connection to the space, were proud to be a part of the space when visitors arrived, and felt the space was a reflection of them) perceived the physical features of the space differently. For example, they experienced the space as more collaborative, social, flexible, energetic, and comfortable, while those who didn’t develop place identity saw the space as noisy and cluttered. Workers who felt a greater personal connection to the space were also more engaged and enthusiastic about their work, believed their communication with colleagues and managers was of higher quality, and felt a greater attachment to the organization.
As one engineer told us, “It’s our place! It’s like another entire thing…. There’s a sense of my stuff, our stuff.” Another worker said, “In a traditional office, we might talk, but not as freely. [This space] is ours. It is our space.” These sentiments were shared again and again.
We also uncovered three important things leaders can do to build place identify and transform workers’ response to new open workspaces.
Convey the Vision Beforehand
While one might assume that the development of place identity begins after workers move into the space, we discovered that communicating the vision and purpose of the new office space prior to move in was a key predictor of employees’ connection to the space. In one of the most successful implementations we observed, Omer (names have been changed), a manager of a team in Israel, explained to the team ahead of time that the firm was investing in the new space in the hopes that it would spur more collaboration, deeper connection to the company, and better products for customers. Omer invited people from other locations where the redesigned workspace had already been implemented to share their experiences. He facilitated small group discussions between the team members and organized a forum where members could communicate with the facilities team so that workers understood what the space would look like and what to expect when they made the move.
In another example, a designer in the U.S. told us that her leaders communicated clearly that an open office design would improve the way the team worked together and the products they produced. Specifically, she told us, “The executive leadership believes that if you sit in a space which is more collaborative, where you are able to see and reach out to people in much quicker cycles, this will translate into how employees think about the products they sell.”
When leaders explicitly describe how the new space will help achieve the organization’s mission, workers are more enthusiastic about the space, have a better sense of how they should be using it, and feel more place identity. Our survey data revealed that workers who believed the space was designed to foster creativity, increase collaboration, enhance flexibility, and promote informal communication had more place identity. After moving in, they were more likely to say that they were proud of the space and that it was a meaningful place for them to work.
In contrast, when workers were not prepared with a clear vision of the space beforehand, they were more likely to perceive the space as a way to cut costs and expressed more resistance and dissatisfaction. As one team member in India said, “We expected a clean cubicle that is comfortable with carpet. The [space] is more of a garage startup with the floor like a garage.… It’s frustrating…. Why should we have this?” The employees in this location were so dissatisfied with the space that the company had to start from scratch by bringing in leaders from one of the other locations to help bridge the gap between the vision of the organization and the understanding of the employees. The new leadership team spent time communicating with employees to clarify how the space supported their work and listened to the needs of workers. This resulted in a redesign of the space that helped workers to see how the new space could enable them and the organization to achieve more innovation and collaboration, as well as meet their functional and aesthetic needs.
Be Enthusiastic About the Space
In addition to preparing employees prior to move in, a leader’s attitude about the space after the transition to the new space provides a critical source of information about how the new space aligns with the work and whether a new office arrangement is desirable, and it affects whether employees believe the new physical environment can benefit their work. Our survey data show that when leaders were positive, place identity flourished. When they were neutral or negative, place identity suffered, and workers were less likely to embrace the new office space.
Many of the employees in our study were engineers who were initially worried that the new space would threaten their traditional way of working — independently and with minimal disruptions. In many cases, the leaders themselves were also transitioning from private offices, which had historically conveyed status and power, into the open office space, where they would sit with team members. We noticed that when leaders made a point to convey positive messages about the space and express enthusiasm upon moving into the space, workers felt better about it.
As one employee said, “The transition was difficult because we had a routine [as he gestures toward the cubicles]. I ended up having a really great experience in the new space because I knew my leaders and got along with them well.” Another member of this same team told us, “Attitude matters. I think the [positive] attitude should come from the managers.” When leaders exhibit frustration or resistance to the change, this trickles down to the employees and reduces their sense of pride in the new environment. Kim, one of the managers in China, for example, felt frustrated in having to give up his private office, and made his resentment clear. When asked why, he disclosed, “I’ve been working my whole life to have my own office. Why would I want to sit with the team?” In Kim’s case, the new space didn’t align with his view of himself and his role, so place identity was never established. The employees he managed were similarly resistant to the new space. Eventually, Kim’s team returned to traditional cubicles until a new leader was hired who believed that an open office design could enhance the way in which the team designed and engineered products. In the end, with the support and enthusiasm of this new leader, a new team was formed that embraced the open office space.
Encourage Workers to Adapt the Space to Their Needs
We found when workers believed they had the latitude to personalize the space, they felt more place identity. The spaces tended to be more colorful and have more personal artifacts — pictures, drawings and playful elements such as kites or decorations hanging from the ceilings. The placement of the furniture was less systematic and reflected the needs of the team. Some teams even regularly rearranged their desks in different configurations to meet their evolving needs for collaboration or privacy.
As David, a leader in one of the U.S. locations, told us, “There are some things we thought would be a good idea and didn’t really work. We originally thought, ‘Let’s maximize the collaboration between teams and have one team sit in this room, the other sit in another room.’ It turned out that some people liked the sunlight on their back [and] some people liked music and the coolness. And so, we said, ‘Yeah, great, let’s try it out and see how it works.’ And it’s actually been good. You don’t necessarily want to sit with your team 24/7…and you get the cross-fertilization across projects. And you are still close enough where you could just walk across the hall. And if you need to, you can even pull the desk over and sit there for a day and work together. So, allowing people to select where they sit [and move the furniture] has been a kind of an unexpected learning.”
Omer, the manager in Israel, told us, “It’s a fine balance between helping people learn how to use the space [while also helping them] to think about what they can do to make the space better for them.” If, for example, an employee felt the space was too noisy, instead of complaining, Omer encouraged them to modify the space to better suit their needs.
When leaders encouraged adaptation and teams felt comfortable claiming the space as their own, they reported more place identity and generally felt better about the objective features of the space, like privacy, noise, and lighting.
Finding the perfect solution for the design of a new office space is complex. Our study reveals that while physical attributes matter, leaders need to pay attention to place identity as well. Place identity affects not only how people feel but also how they perceive the physical features of the space. When leaders communicate the value of the space beforehand, proactively help workers acclimate, and give employees leeway to adapt the space, organizations are much more likely to reap the benefits of the investment in redesigned workspaces.
More Info: hbr.org
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