Promoting Open, Flexible, and Empowered Offices

If you work for a digital agency, I can close my eyes and, without ever having visited your office, probably get pretty close to describing the environment. I’m not psychic and haven’t done an exhaustive study. These offices just tend to the same general look and feel because it works.

Typically, there’s lots of open space. The development team works in low light with the account staff on the phone — loudly. Unless there’s a client meeting, most of the staff wear jeans or similarly comfortable attire with earphones plugged in while they listen to their iPods and tap away with dual screens in front of them. They tap regularly into an intranet or some other shared, collaborative application that allows staff members to keep each other up to speed.

Some staff work early, some work late, some work virtually. The pantries are stocked with snacks; some healthy and organic, but most of the old original standbys are there — Oreos included. There are plenty of toys, including Nerf guns, which are de rigueur. If we were talking about the dot-com era, then you could probably add a ping-pong table, foosball table, or even a basketball court to complete the picture.

But it isn’t just the ad agencies. Walk into most modern businesses with any kind of online component and you’ll find some elements of this or a similar environment.

Why is the atmosphere so similar across such a diverse group of businesses? Because an open, flexible, and empowered business structure is the only way that businesses can survive and thrive; this model is reflected in the office policies, structure, and even office and furniture configuration of many businesses today.

Change is a constant, and the pace of change is accelerating. Businesses must be flexible, nimble, and paying attention to keep up and succeed in this environment.

  • Open floor plans foster collaboration and improve the speed of problem resolution. Team members are comfortable talking to and helping each other in this configuration. It also appeals to the younger generation most likely to work in these businesses. Most don’t aspire to an office and don’t see it as a symbol of success.
  • Shared virtual work environments — whether an intranet or other application — mean that not every staff member must learn everything on their own. Threaded discussion groups grab the latest headlines and assess the impact in a closed and safe environment for discussion. This info remains available and searchable for training or research purposes later. It allows experts to emerge in their field and concentrate their efforts for greater impact while they skim the work of other experts to stay on top of their game.
  • Virtual work tools allow team members to regularly or intermittently work offsite in an efficient manner. This puts the emphasis on finding the right fit for talent and resources wherever they may be physically based. It also grounds employee evaluation in the productivity or quality of what they bring to the business and less on the hours they sit in their chair.
  • Youth is no longer a deterrent to advancement. When the game plan shifts continuously, the best performers aren’t always those with the most experience within an environment. Rather, it’s those who can quickly make the right adjustments for success. Value, ideas, and innovation come from all levels of experience.
  • The youthful culture is only partly a function of the age of the working set in these businesses. You will find many 40-, 50-, or 60-somethings as appreciative of the new business model as their younger counterparts. More mature workers have experienced another kind of career with many more restrictions and much less opportunity. They don’t take it for granted when management listens to their ideas. It’s a marked feature of successful ventures today that they constantly flex and remodel themselves based on continuous learning from many sources, including the marketplace and especially their own teams.

What can other businesses learn from the success of the new business culture epitomized by digital business? Every business is impacted by the pace of change today and would benefit from the experience of those who have learned to hone their business environment for success.

The same forces that have sculpted the open, flexible, and empowered business models that are necessary for success in interactive or online businesses can be and should be applied to any business undergoing rapid change. And what business isn’t?

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