Open for business

Written by Brian Scudamore

Have you ever considered an open-concept office environment? Some of the world’s fastest-growing companies have made the strategic decision against private offices — Amazon, Bloomberg and CNN, to name a few.

Our decision to join the open-concept club was strategic, but it didn’t start off that way. Back in 1996, we employed eight people in a 500-square-foot room. (It was purely a cost-saving mechanism, since rent is a significant overhead for any new business.) When we outgrew our space, we moved into 1,700 square feet. This meant I could finally have my own office, which offered privacy, a distraction-free zone and a place for holding a meeting anytime. Nice!

But it didn’t take long for me to miss being out in the open. I felt disconnected from the team, and always seemed to hear news a lot later than I was used to. The pros of my own private space were quickly being outweighed by the cons.

I wondered whether being in the heart of the action was simply my personal preference. I certainly didn’t want to throw everyone into an open environment if it didn’t mesh with their style, so we stayed the course with private offices until we moved again in 2002.

This was when our open-concept environment truly became the 1-800-GOT-JUNK? Way — although mainly by accident. We sublet 9,000 square feet from a failed dot-com that had poured a ton of money into its open-concept design. Rather than remodel, we decided to save and make use of the space as it was.

The unexpected benefits of this choice were dramatic and came quickly. I noticed the connection that everyone was feeling, both as a team and in the alignment of their communication. People working on their own tasks were simultaneously tuning into key conversations that they knew they should be a part of. They were witnessing people sharing good news or trying to solve problems to which they could contribute solutions. The biggest impact was that everyone had landed on the same page; I stopped hearing people say things like “I didn’t know that such-and-such a franchise partner was having challenges.” People were now dialled in like they’d never been before, and were talking more in and across all departments — even finance, which we tend to think of as a quiet, heads-down culture.

There are legitimate criticisms of open-concept offices. One big question: how can you get any work done with so much noise? My experience has taught me that any benefits you gain from focus, you lose to increased disconnection and reduced team spirit.

Here’s a case in point. When we moved yet again last September (as is inevitable for a growth company), our new space wasn’t complete, forcing us to squat temporarily on a floor that had just been vacated by a law firm. Just about everyone had a private office. For two weeks, staff told me how much more focused and productive they were. This scared the heck out of me! But by the end of the fifth week, their tune had changed. They detected a distinct cultural change for the worse. They noticed that duplication and miscommunication were creeping into 1-800-GOT-JUNK? And people started to feel like they weren’t hearing about important information as quickly as they needed it — just like I’d felt nearly a decade ago. While it may seem as if we were accomplishing more, our company was not pulsing as quickly. Our free-flowing entrepreneurial spirit was being reined in — something no growth-oriented company can afford.

Another question: how do you deal with private conversations, such as performance reviews or letting an employee go? We have almost 30 meeting rooms at the Junktion. If someone needs to focus for a day, they just book a room. If someone needs to make a private phone call, we have six single-person rooms we call “phone booths.”

Let me put my faith in open-concept offices into a more measurable perspective. Our last move was into a downtown office tower with private offices. It cost us $2.4 million to rip out those offices and make the space our own. We could have saved well over $1 million by making use of the existing structure. In fact, one-third of our renovation budget was spent on linking all three of our floors with a stairwell — a connection that I also believe will pay off.

Everyone I know who has committed to a proper test of an open-concept environment has strategically decided to stay the course. There’s no doubt in my mind that an open concept encourages collaboration, which makes companies more innovative and responsive. It helps team members help each other, while also improving your internal processes. (Get people talking about them more often, and you’ll be amazed at what great ideas they come up with.)

You don’t need to go open concept with your entire office all at once. Perhaps you could pick a team and let them hijack a boardroom in which they can work together for a few months. Experiment a little. And let me know how it works.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com