Open plan offices – a pleasure or a pain?

From an organisation’s point of view, open plan offices have lower a carbon footprint than private offices and they’re cheap. They can be cheap and nasty or cheap and reasonably pleasant, depending on how much the organisation is willing to pay for the comfort and productivity of their employees.

What do you think about them? Are they are great way to help people communicate and innovate? Do they offer an atmosphere of excitement and energy?

Or are they just a low-cost and easy way to keep an eye on people and make sure they’re working? Do they reduce productivity because they’re noisy and filled with distractions? Are they unpleasant because they make people feel like battery hens? Do they damage working relationships because people get annoyed with each other’s glaringly obvious personal habits – untidy desks, slurping smelly lunches, speaking loudly on the ‘phone, humming tunelessly to themselves… (Clearly, good manners, common sense and emotional intelligence on the part of employees are a must in open workspaces.)

Open plan offices have been around for a long time and they can work well when people need to work collaboratively. They don’t work well when people need to concentrate and they don’t work well when they make people feel like they have no control over their working environment.

You can get around those two big minuses with good planning and flexibility. You can have readily available ‘quiet rooms’ where people can take work, meeting rooms when people need to get together to discuss issues and innovate solutions, and you can let people personalise their ‘space’. People can work from home when they need to concentrate or when they have a cold, (germs spread faster in open spaces). You can seat people with a low level of tolerance for noise and distractions in the quietest part of the office.

In Germany and Scandinavia, people generally have their own office with a door and a window they can open and shut. In the USA, the cubicle is favoured. But maybe private offices, cubicles and open plan offices will all eventually go the way of the dodo, as remote working, workplace hubs and new ways of designing offices, with free-flowing spaces, take hold. I’ve seen an office in Switzerland where employees can work at sofas, reclining chairs, cafe-style tables or outside in a lovely garden. Flexibility, informality and a feeling of coziness, friendliness and homeliness are shaping up to be the go for offices of the future.

In the meantime, what can you do to make your own workspace, and the workspace of your team, more conducive to productivity, cooperation, innovation and effective working relationships?


It’s all about the people, folks

In many ways, leading virtual teams, project teams and roaming teams (for example, teams of ‘road warriors’ such as ambulance and police officers, sales representatives and repair service technicians) aren’t all that different from leading teams whose members work with you in the same space every day. All these teams have goals to achieve and members who want to feel they’re making a useful, and appreciated, contribution. They want to feel they’re making progress, not just towards achieving their work goals but also personally, in terms of learning and development, for example. And they want to feel a sense of camaraderie with those they work with.

Communication and cordial relationships are the first two foundations for success in all of these types of team. This should come as no surprise — people don’t respond well to being taken for granted. We all want to know we’re valued as individuals, not just for the results we produce, but also as people with families and homes and hobbies.

Without prying, get to know a little bit about each team member’s life outside of work so you can ‘pass the time of day’ in a relaxed and friendly way. Make time every day to check in with each team member and see how they’re going, both generally and work-wise. With roaming, virtual and project teams, you probably need to make a special effort to do that.

Most team members don’t want to connect just with their boss but also with each other; this happens naturally when people see each other every day, but it can be much harder to get to know your project, roaming and virtual teammates. That’s where you come in: finding ways to help the team members get to know a bit about each other’s lives and interests.  

As with any team, take care that subgroups, or cliques, don’t develop, particularly when your team is made up of people from different cultures, functions or locations. Friendships may develop but your goal is to help all team members bond and build up a team spirit.

The third foundation of leading virtual, roaming and project teams is clear expectations. It goes without saying that you need to make clear people’s roles and goals and matters such the formats and frequency of up-dates and how quickly to respond to queries and other communications. Make your expectations clear about non-task matters, too, such as the behaviours you expect during meetings and when it is and isn’t okay to contact each other outside of normal hours.

The ability to lead teams well is a core skill in modern workplaces. It doesn’t matter what sector or industry you’re in — consumer goods, education, finance, manufacturing, service or high tech, or even where your team members are located and how often you see them face-to-face, you still need to make your expectations clear, communicate openly and often, treat team members as individual people who make a worthwhile contribution and find ways to cement their relationships with each other as well as with you.

Two all-important three-letter words

There is a three-letter word that creates arguments and another that creates cooperation. The first is ‘but’ and the second is ‘and’. Who would think one small, simple word has the power to damage relationships and spoil conversations, and the other to make them more satisfying and effective?

‘That’s a good effort, but …’                                 ‘That looks fine, but …’
‘You did a good job, but …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, but …’
‘I take your point, but …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, but …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, but …’               ‘That’s one option, but …’

Do you see? When you hear the word ‘but’, you know bad news is coming. The ‘but’ butts away the positive information preceding it. It’s a verbal hammer that signals disagreement.

Are you thinking of substituting ‘but’ with ‘however’? Forget it. ‘However’ is just a three-syllable version of ‘but’ and sends the same signals.

Substitute ‘but’ with ‘and’.

‘That’s a good effort, and …’                                 ‘That looks fine, and …’
‘You did a good job, and …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, and …’
‘I take your point, and …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, and …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and …’               ‘That’s one option, and …’

Hear the difference? ‘But’ blocks.  ‘And’ builds. With ‘and’, you’re working with people, not pushing against them. ‘And’ allows you to offer an improvement suggestion while acknowledging the good job that has been done.

‘That’s a good effort, and something else you could try is …’
‘That looks fine, and one way to enhance it might be to …’
‘You did a good job, and it would be fantastic if you could also …’
‘I can tell you tried, and you’ve made good progress. One thing for next time is …’

‘And’ also shows you’ve listened and heard.  It helps prevent arguments because it allows two points of view to stand and acknowledges and extends what the other person has said.

‘I take your point, and another thing we could consider is …’
‘We’ve received your order, and in order to process it, I just need …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and here’s another way to look at it.’
‘That’s one option, and another might be …’


Substituting ‘but’ with ‘and’ can be a hard habit to break, at least it was for me, but it was well worth it. Communication becomes much more cooperative. It also becomes much more clear without muddying the waters with the mixed message ‘but’ sends.

One more thing: Much of the time, you can simply substitute ‘and’ for ‘but’. But (yes, here’s some slightly bad news) sometimes, you need to reconstruct the sentence and make your point differently. When that happens, the reworded statement is invariably stronger, more cooperative and more effective than the original version. And it’s definitely worth the effort when you want more agreements than arguments.

How to turn a gloomy mood into a good mood

Have you ever noticed that when you smile at someone, they usually smile back? That’s the Law of Psychological Reciprocity, or the Boomerang Principle, and you can use it to make your days, and everyone else’s, that much brighter.

Facial expressions and the moods that accompany them are contagious. This probably evolved as a means of non-verbal communication between people way back in our cave-dwelling days. That’s why giving a smile and getting one in return can jump-start a great day for you and for your whole team. (And next time you see a team member looking a bit grumpy, pay them a compliment and watch what happens!)

Putting on a happy face does something else for you, too: it influences your brain positively and short-circuits any sad or pessimistic feelings you have. Lots of studies show that looking happy actually makes people feel happy, even when they didn’t start out that way.

There’s a biological reason for this based on what I call the feedback loop between the body and the brain. Just as your mood affects your body language, you can use your body language to direct your mood (for better or for worse).

The next time you’re feeling gloomy, don’t let your frowns confirm your misery to your brain — send it a different, positive message. Your mood will begin to change accordingly.

And so will your team’s mood. As you may remember from Chapter 13, Building effective teams, mirror neurons are located throughout the human brain. Their job is to help people detect another person’s emotions and empathise with them, and to instruct them to mimic, or mirror, what the other person does as a way of reflecting empathy.

Your team members watch you closely, and your behaviour and emotions create similar responses in them: When you feel positive, so do they; when you feel despondent or worried, so do they. That’s one important reason that being positive and friendly, having a laugh and setting an easygoing tone builds your team’s cohesion, morale and productivity.

Five habits that help you excel

Here are five ways that are practically guaranteed to make you stand out and shine at whatever you do:

  1. Mind your body language. Body language links what’s going on in your head and your heart with how you approach tasks and therefore, how easily and fully you achieve your goals. It echoes what you’re feeling and thinking and at the same time, it loops back and steers your thoughts and feelings.Here’s a little experiment that proves it: Sit up tall and straight, shoulders back, hold your head high and put a great big smile on your face. Hold that position and say, ‘I really, really really hate my job.’ You can’t say it with conviction, can you? In fact, I bet you laughed as you struggled to complain.

    When you want to do something well and enjoy doing it, make sure your body language sets you up for success.

  2. Don’t let other people, situations or events dictate your mood or behaviour. Pull your own strings. The more you control your moods, thoughts and actions, the more easily you can achieve more of what you want.
  3. Sow the right seeds to harvest the results you want. Show the way for others to follow. One of the most important seeds to sow, for example, is to treat yourself and other people with respect. This is one of the cornerstones of success.
  4. Fake it ’till you make it. It’s what you say and do that generate results.Remember that tale about Robert the Bruce? He’s in the dark, damp dungeon with nothing to do but watch a spider try to climb high enough up the moldy, slippery wall to build a web, only to slip back. That little spider never gave up, hence the expression, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s excellent advice, provided you do something different; when you keep doing the same things, you keep getting the same results.

    What should you do when you do this ‘something else’? That’s where faking it comes in. When you don’t know what to do, fake it. Keep trying out different approaches until you find one that works. That’s pretty much the process Thomas Edison used when he was busy inventing all sorts of things from the electric light bulb to the phonograph. And it seemed to work for him, because he invented something every 10 days on average, and applied for 400 patents a year.

  5. Act as if. William James, often referred to as the ‘father of psychology’, taught us the act as if principle. He said, ‘Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does’. He also said, ‘If you want a quality, act as if you already have it’. Two great ways to achieve great results.There is a third way to use the act as if principle: When you don’t know what to say or do in a situation, think of someone you know or know of who would know exactly the right thing to do or say. Step mentally into their shoes and act as if you’re them. This starts you moving in the right direction and might even produce the precise result you’re after. And next time you’re in a similar situation, you’ll know what do do, because you’ve done it before.

Add these five ways of thinking and behaving to your repertoire and maybe hand out sunglasses to those around you. They’ll need them because you’ll be shining so brightly!