Does an open office always translate into an open culture?

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While it may facilitate an open culture, it may not guarantee one.

Many organisations these days are opting for modern-looking open office designs, that promise a more collaborative and open work environment. However, people have, at times, raised concerns about distractions at work and lack of privacy that tag along with an open workspace. At the same time, there are benefits, such as easy and quick inter and intra team interactions. But, whether an open office design necessarily translates into an open working culture, is still a question.

Here’s what the experts have to say—

Rohit Kumar, HR director (CHRO), Kellogg India

The open office concept has to be complemented with a change in mindset of the leadership. 

The office layout can be a great enabler in reinforcing the organisation’s culture. With companies becoming less hierarchical and more informal, office design should reflect this new-age reality. The smell of the workplace and the energy that’s palpable within has a lot to do with the way its layout has been designed. The open office concept enables more collaboration and engagement across functions and hierarchies. However, this has to be complemented with a change in mindset of the leadership. There is sure to be dissonance and resistance to change if the leadership is not at ease with the reality of the new world being created.

With more and more organisations breaking down the barriers of cabins and walls, care has to be taken to incorporate abundant collaborative spaces, ample meeting rooms, and easy access to phone booths and private meeting space to carry out sensitive conversations. If not carefully designed, the open office can actually lead to intrusion of privacy and become a hindrance when an employee needs uninterrupted quiet time to work on critical work proposals.

Manish Kumar, head-HR and learning & development, Ricoh India

Open Office can only make a difference along with a top-to-bottom approach.

Open offices have become quite common nowadays owing to the fact that a large part of the working population constitutes millennials, who prefer workplaces with an open culture. In fact, even before joining an organisation, millennials are concerned about the company’s culture. An organisation that lacks an open culture is sure to lose out on young talent.

While an open work culture is extremely important these days, an open office design does not necessarily indicate an organisation has an open culture. Although an open office is an effective enabler for an open culture, it does not guarantee one. It is just one of the ingredients and can only make a difference along with a top-to-bottom approach, where the senior leadership, including the MD, makes efforts to build a culture of openness. The top management’s conviction is crucial to ensuring an open work culture.

Compared to the traditional workplace design, which doesn’t even allow employees to see each other’s faces properly, the modern open workspaces are devoid of most physical barriers, allowing enhanced approachability. Open offices allow better verbal and non-verbal communication at the workplace.

Saurabh Nigam, vice president, human capital, Omidyar Network

It is ultimately the leaders’ responsibility to create and maintain an open and vibrant culture.

I am a big advocate of open workspaces, but to say that it always translates into an open work culture would not be fair, because that’s not true. An open workspace is better for various economic and behavioural reasons. Open offices are aesthetically better as they are brightly lit and tastefully decorated, with people around providing the area a dense and active looking environment.

Such a workspace is also better in terms of providing easy access and communication, making it a more connected workplace. It certainly brings in a lot of positivity and liveliness into the work environment.

Despite these benefits, an open workspace design only facilitates an open culture but doesn’t really ensure one. There are other factors that are equally important. An open culture is very much dependent on the leaders in an organisation—their mindset and the general work culture. Whether the leaders or managers are open and appreciative of people asking questions or offering honest feedback, makes a big difference in maintaining or not maintaining an open culture.

It is more a matter of the mentality of the office rather than its design. It is ultimately the leaders’ responsibility to create and maintain an open and vibrant culture.

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