Work Experience Design: Google May Get Work Wrong, But it is the Design Not The Open Office

I just saw an item from the Washington Post from last December titled: Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace by Lindsey Kaufman. The article outlines her horrible experience at a New York ad agency that moved to an open office: lost productivity, judgement about personal routines and the daily experience of working as a member of a twelve person communal activity.

Work Experience Design

The problem isn’t the open office, it is the work experience design. Kaufman suggests that the alternative is to let people work from home, a proven boost to productivity for many. But there are advantages to working in a shared space, and that conflict requires an examination of the issues in the work experiences, the need to find balance, and then to design the overall experience.

When I worked at Microsoft, I was intimately involved in the transformation of the Dutch office at Schiphol Airport. This was an open office design, but the emphasis was not just on space, but on practice and technology.

  • Managers were taught how to manage in an open environment with remote team members.
  • Individuals made a choice as to when to work in the office, with an emphasis on determining where your presence provided the most value.
  • All the team leaders committed to becoming the best users of Microsoft technology by really understanding how to integrate it into their work.
  • Individuals committed to their key performance indicators and were empowered to negotiate a work experience that supported their successful delivery of their KPIs.

Negotiation is a key word in the New World of Work. Individuals don’t create new ways of working in a vacuum. Work is a collective activity, so how you choose to work, if you are in an office or not, impacts the way others work. That requires dialog and negotiation to get to a design that works. And when a design element changes, be it the introduction of a new person with new practices, a new software tool or the shift to an open office, the practices and policies must be renegotiated. The work experience must adapt.

Learning to Create Good Work Experience Design

As I worked with the Dutch team, I also was writing Management by Design, which captures the lessons I was learning there and elsewhere. A key finding: there is no simple approach to work design. Work is includes a complex set of factors that exist in a messy world, and the only way to get work close to right is to think of it as a holistic experience. Choose to emphasize one element over another without understanding how they balance, and you create the kind of environment Ms. Kaufman describes. Organizations must embrace transformations in policy and practice, space and technology when they redesign their work experience. An open office is one potential building block, it is not the only one, and usually it isn’t the main one.

Any organization looking to create its urban chic, open floorpan office needs to take the time to rethink the entirety of the work experience or they will end up not with a bustling space full of engaged people creating value, but a big open echo chamber that amplifies all of the details they failed to account for.

You can find out more about the Microsoft experience here.