Transparency in Offices

Chicago, IL | May 21, 2018

Transparency in Offices - Marc Schwartz

Walk into any new workspace, and you’ll most likely be greeted by offices and conference rooms walled with glass and low-partitioned workstations. Even in “budget conscious” spaces, you’ll at least see strips of glass wide enough to peer through next to each door or gaze across desks no longer buried behind beige, fabric-wrapped panels. Why is physical transparency such a prominent feature of almost every office we see today?

From nearly every perspective, our society is more connected than ever before. Correspondingly, the psychology of the modern worker is based much more on access to coworkers than in times past. Today’s corporate work style and the physical office space have followed suit, putting increased emphasis on collaboration, interaction, and cooperation as opposed to who falls where on the totem pole. In short, transparency is crucial for productivity, morale, and retention in today’s corporate environment.

Transparency in Offices - Marc SchwartzOnce having emphasized status over connectivity, workspaces used to place bosses in a corner office or on a higher floor, away from general staff. Now, it’s more likely that the boss is sitting in the workstation behind you. An evolving generation of workers (millennials and Gen Zers) can be partly credited with this change in office dynamics. This growing segment of the workforce comes from an educational and social environment that stresses openness in classrooms, collaboration in practice (such as in sports) and social visibility where being seen and “part of it” is essential – think social media. The fear of missing out on an event or comment, or not getting invited to a meeting that might be important for the project you’re working on, or even your career goals, exceeds most workers’ desire for hierarchical recognition, especially as it relates to space.

This corporate paradigm shift was at work in a Fortune 100 company I helped with a headquarters relocation several years ago. My team started the process with an examination of the company’s space use and operations. Part of our strategy development was to investigate the firm’s recruitment and retention success, or lack thereof – key to most companies’ core efforts these days – and how their existing workspace might be affecting those efforts.

As a Fortune 100 company, our client didn’t have a problem recruiting employees. Similarly, their staff had impressive average longevity once hired – just north of 20 years. What we did find during our evaluation was that a vast majority of those who did leave, left after 4-7 years with the company. This was a stunning revelation for leadership. Why were employees leaving after a solid vesting of training and other corporate commitments?

Diving deeper into these findings with staff interviews and observation, we discovered that these “partially-vested hires” and middle managers were generally isolated from their supervisors via closed doors and solid walls. In simple terms, the managers would arrive to work, go to their offices, and disappear behind a closed door. Employees who wanted to talk to their leaders had to knock on a door or wait for their superior to venture outside of their office. Casual connectivity, which is arguably just as important as business-related interaction for overall employee morale, was at best based on bathroom breaks or a trip to get coffee. It became glaringly evident through our investigation that staff who left for other opportunities lacked the ability to connect with their superiors, or the people who would ultimately determine their upward mobility.

Transparency in Offices - Marc SchwartzCurbing this form of attrition and redefining the interrelationships across our client’s staffing matrices became the foundation of our new planning and space design standards. This revelation also cemented the value of relocating the client’s headquarters – an option that was initially a long shot. The revised design standards for the company’s new facility included an open floorplan and making nearly all the walls clear glass (including partially between offices). The impact of such a dramatic change was felt immediately, with leadership leveraging the more transparent environment to create a culture of collaboration and engagement.

While some may see the open office as a loss of privacy or decorative enhancement, transparency clearly has value from a business and cultural perspective. The value transparency provides is simple; connected employees feel closer to each other, more engaged with the company, better heard by leadership, and personally valued – all crucial elements to a productive team that will stick with you. 

Learn more about MBRE’s Marc Schwartz.