What can make a move even more Earth-shaking for people is if they are one of the many companies moving from an individual office plan to an open-plan solution. For the many who have never worked in an open-plan environment it can be very daunting. There be very little, and in many cases, no experience to draw from which significantly heightens the sense of uncertainty. This in turn can quickly send someone into a reactive mindset.
In a reactive state of mind people tend to get hung up on the nitty-gritty of details; they tend to exaggerate the problems; their focus be on the things outside of their control; they may get emotionally hijacked; they tend to be more problem-oriented; they develop self-limiting beliefs; and have the tendency to make more reactive decisions.
Many of us have this natural reaction to change. This is especially true if it is change that we have not initiated, but which circumstance has forced us into. Our ancient ancestors that lived on the open savannah 50,000 years ago tended to stay put if resources were sufficient and game could be had. The brain tends to see things in very black and white terms - life or death. One of the reasons the brain wanted our ancestors to stay put is certainty. Certainty that our mental map of the territory was correct. Certainty where water and food could be found. Certainty of where the predators tended to lurk. Certainty where it was safe to spend the night.
On the other hand, picking up and moving meant uncertainty. It meant the brain had to use more energy to map a new territory, but more than that uncertainty also brought with it a high-degree of risk. The brains prime-directive is to keep you alive. Uncertainty and unpredictability are the arch-enemies of the brain and it will do its very best to try to dissuade someone from making a move. Better the risk you know than the risk you don't.
What is an organization to do?
From my experience, working both with small and large organizations moving into an open-landscape work space the key is to create as much certainty as possible. Communicate often and early enough in the process building up to the move. Predictability and certainty are going to be an organizations best allies to encouraging people to take a 'constructive' approach to a move.
I consciously use the term constructive instead of positive. The reality is an open- landscape has both it's advantages and disadvantages. By using the term 'positive approach' it has the unintended connotations of trying to sell the idea much like a used-car salesman. It doesn't matter how charismatic someone is or how persuasive their message, if a person is not in the mood to buy it will be an act of futility to try to sell them the idea. This is even more true if a person is already in a reactive mindset.
When in a reactive state of mind biased thinking proliferates. Biased thinking is a type of thought process that limits our possibility to see solutions and opportunities, because our thinking becomes rigid and inflexible. We tend to only see one side of the coin and refuse to believe there is another side. When it comes to change there are 5 types of biased thinking that are relevant to moving to an open-plan office. I mention two of these below.
- Confirmation Bias. People have an automatic and unconscious tendency to filter information that only supports their current belief. For example, if a person is negative toward the move they will have a greater tendency to read articles or have selective memory of stories and incidents that only highlight the disadvantages of open-plan environments.
- Ownership Bias. You can see ownership in play when you conduct a meeting and you call for a break. When people return they will tend to sit in the exact same place. Since they took that seat at the beginning their brains not only ‘own’ that particular seat, but the perspective of the meeting leader, the location of their neighbors, the position at the table and so on. Ownership bias becomes even more evident when someone has to give up 'their' office. People tend only to think about what they're losing and what they're giving up. It becomes nearly impossible to see the things that they are gaining or the advantages a new situation brings. It also means it becomes even more difficult to find solutions for things that are not working and which need to be addressed.
What is a constructive approach?
As mentioned above, creating as much certainty and predictability early enough in the process is of fundamental importance. The other important element is creating a planned forum for people to voice their concerns, opinions and ideas.
When I run these workshops for organizations the key is to to keep the participant numbers down to a size that encourages dialogue. If the group is too large and the group is highly negative then a constructive workshop can sour quickly. I have found that a good number is between 10 to 12 participants.
In order to put people into a constructive mode for dialogue I think it essential to prime peoples minds. I find the best way of doing this is to open each of my workshops by teaching people about about mindsets, about key-functions of the brain related to change, and about biased thinking. The insights gained from this introduction help people to gain real-time perspective of how their thinking is actually affecting them physically and psychologically. I can not stress how affective I have found this to be when helping organizations acclimatize to the idea and the reality of moving offices. This part is key in putting people into a mind state that is objective, reflective and decisive.
In the second part of the workshop I find the following are some of the key areas that need to be addressed:
- how to engage people and hold conversations?
- what should we be aware of regarding our surroundings?
- how should we define phone etiquette in the office environment?
- what should we be aware of regarding focus rooms, meeting rooms, and social areas?
As mundane as these topics may seem it is actually here that create many of the flash-points of discontent and frustration with working in an open landscape. Under each of these areas it is important to ask a wide range of questions to capture a spectrum of thoughts and opinions.. The quality of the questions will determine the quality of the answers and of the quality of the discussion that follows.
What are the end-points?
I think there are 2 overall end-points that should be achieved. The first, as has already been discussed, is the fact that there are dedicated workshops where people can voice and share their opinions, concerns and solutions.
Simply getting people to constructively discuss an issue where you examine both the advantages and disadvantages leaves a majority of the people more positive about a move. People get the opportunity to have many of their questions answered and to have many of their knowledge-gaps filled. It is this increase in certainty and predictability that puts people into a more constructive state of mind.
The second outcome of the workshop is to compile a list of recommendations to create a code of conduct. This is simply document of suggested practices to encourage and remind people of behaviour that is conducive to an open-plan office. Creating such a list allows people to feel a sense of control and influence. This is so essential since many times such a move is perceived as something that is forced on them and beyond their control.
These are only my experiences working with a number of companies that have made a move to an open-plan solution. Of course there are a few other issues that need to be addressed, but the core fundamentals mentioned above are important to build into any process.
In the end
I truly believe the owners of change need to take an active and engaged role in preparing people for a big move. They need to design a forum or a series of forums where the people who will be affected have a chance to voice their thoughts and concerns as a group.
From my experience, if the forum is structured and well-balanced and people learn something about themselves, their brains, and they're thinking it can lead to a very constructive dialogue.
In a future blog entry, I will share with you the process I follow-up with companies 6 to 12 months after they have made the move. The post-occupancy process is a key element to getting people to acclimatize.
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