How an open plan office can help make teams more effective.
The open plan office can be a source of great frustration. Although some people seem to love working in this kind of office setup – it favours the gregarious and highly social. Others, find this environment noisy and distracting and hard to concentrate. But it can be really useful in putting teams together.
One of our clients took a novel approach to getting two parts of the finance group to work better together. Our client, Alex, was aware that his two finance teams, planning and analysis and financial reporting, were not working as well together as they could. His two direct reports, Jorge and Romana were polite but distant and their teams took their cues from them. Alex wanted them to really understand each other more and collaborate.
Jorge, manager of financial reporting, was conscientious and careful, ensuring that his team’s data was accurate and timely and reflected fairly the financial picture of the organization. He was passionate about ensuring the organization’s assets were well looked after.
Romana, manager of financial analysis, understood the need for accurate data but where Jorge’s role ended, hers began. To her, it felt like a constant battle to get the data soon enough to be able to do useful and timely analysis for the executives so that they could run the business better. She saw Jorge as unnecessarily rigid and jealous of his territory and while she understood his point about accuracy, she didn’t understand why he was so difficult.
Both managers tended to work with their doors closed and only talked to each other when absolutely necessary. Their teams communicated but Alex was convinced that they actually felt guilty about it and tried not to do it in front of the managers.
We suggested that he try an experiment to force the issue. Alex set up a meeting with his two managers to lay out the issues as he saw it. First he asked them to listen without interrupting. He described what he had been seeing in their behaviour. He talked about the negative impact it was having on their staff, on him, on the work and even on the senior executive team. Then he shared his solution, admitting that it was unorthodox but letting them know that he wanted them to give it a chance. He was going to mix up the two teams and the managers and have them all sit out in the bullpen. The two managers were going to vacate their offices and sit in the open space with their teams. He was going to have the two offices reorganized as small meeting spaces so that if private conversations had to happen, they could.
Then he told them what he wanted to see. He wanted to see one finance team that was open, friendly and collaborative. He wanted Jorge and Romana and their teams to work together respectfully and have each other’s back. And to cement this, there would be a joint team meeting, facilitated by alternating managers (Jorge one week and Romana the next) to discuss the work and take suggestions from the team on how things could work better. Alex suggested that they would try it for three months, after which they would take stock and decide what to do next.
Then he asked them what they would each need to make the two teams work as one. To Alex’s surprise, both Jorge and Romana admitted that they had been stuck in a rut with each other. Jorge asked for more respect for his processes and his passion for accuracy. Romana agreed but asked him if he would be open looking for shortcuts in his quarter end close that would allow her team to begin the analysis earlier. Both agreed. Romana asked him if he would like to co-present some of the analysis with her the next time.
At the end of the three months the full teams met to discuss the pros and cons of the arrangement.
- The teams said that they had found it easier to communicate when Romana and Jorge were willing to work together
- As the trust between Romana and Jorge went up, the team members were able to relax and have more fun
- They learned more about each other’s roles and responsibilities and the Monday morning meetings had led to some improvements in how both teams did their work
- The fact that Romana and Jorge had taken turns leading their Monday morning meetings meant that everyone felt able to make suggestions about any part of the work… they were more creative as well
- When a crisis arose, they worked together to solve it and the solutions came faster.
- As the trust between Jorge and Romana went up, the trust in them from the senior executives rose as well. Alex’s boss complimented him on how he had gotten them to work better together.
- It was much more noisy with all the people working on the phones around each other.
- They were more open to distraction as people tended to get involved in conversations out in the open and others joined in but they agreed in one of their Monday meetings, that such conversations should take place in the small offices.
The dynamics of the team were more effective as they began to understand each other. Romana and Jorge elected to go back to their offices at the end of the three months but they kept the regular Monday morning joint team meetings and they instituted a regular Monday lunch, just the two of them. Alex’s boss told him he was a star for solving what had become a sticky issue.
We can help. The work we do with leaders and teams helps them clarify what effective communication looks like and how to use it to help your company. While you’re here, why not take a few minutes and do a team assessment to find out what may help your team win. Contact us today for this and other team-related questions.