The open office concept exemplified by tech giants and hip startups has reached Corporate America. The notion of stuffy cubicles and conference rooms has faded as unassigned seating and remote work takes over. But beer Fridays, ping-pong tables and nap rooms don’t answer the real question about getting work done. We need an alternative worldview and it starts by asking what would Starbuck’s do?
Ping! Ta-Da! Bloop! Woo-hoo!
These are the undeniable sounds of instant messages, email, Slack, Teams, and Trello–tools for the digital workforce. Collaboration has never been easier — that is until you enter the modern office.
Displays of slick, pulsating videos in the lobby, interns zipping by on a onewheel, and a group of smartly dressed Millennials socializing at the kombucha bar.
The scene might describe a typical Silicon Valley darling. Yet, it reflects a growing trend in Corporate America. Companies are increasingly grafting the “Silicon Valley Model” to their workplace.
For the UX professional, maintaining flow and creativity is paramount to great design. However, when creature comfort takes over the workplace, it blurs the line between getting stuff done and being distracted. The only hope of accomplishing something is to put headphones on, and your head down.
So how can designers solve the problem? One way is to adopt an “alternative world” view.
The Alternative World View
In Design Thinking, to ideate wicked issues like workplace dynamics requires a novel approach. Alternative Worlds asks: How would a successful organization outside your domain solve a given issue? For example, if I tasked your team with reinvigorating a public library you might ask: What would Starbucks do?
To start, organize a grid of categories including: Creative Organizations, Charities, Innovative Business and Operating Models, Innovative People, Great Customer Service, Luxury Experiences and Global Reach.
Next, begin brainstorming your selections and placing them underneath each category. I use sticky notes for this exercise, as it provides flexibility to move my selections around. A simple spreadsheet or document works too.
Coming up with different perspectives, it’s easy to get stuck. Bring out a Thesaurus to identify words that get the creative juices flowing. For example, if your focus is “service” you can pick from several similar words like “assistance”. This second choice can become “roadside assistance”. Ultimately, leading you to ask, “How do roadside assistance companies deliver prompt support?”
A wall full of sticky notes is just the beginning. Alternative Worlds requires a deep understanding of the culture, practices, and workflow of your selections. Failing to do so will cause misplaced appropriation.
Adopting the perspective of a different domain is novel. Yet, it shifts you’re thinking to uncover new and breakthrough ideas. One such approach is applying the hospitality industry to the office milieu. What would a five-star hotel do to provide great employee experiences?
Why Do This Exercise at All? It Is About Control.
The trend in lively, open offices is not slowing.
Mike Robbins, an executive coach for large firms, says, “…consulting with companies that are more traditional, they’re asking, ‘What’s Google doing? What’s happening in Silicon Valley?’ They see all the success.”
Robbins’ book, Bring Your Whole Self to Work, advocates for workspaces designed to make employees feel safe to take risks on new projects and collaborate frequently. This approach requires the strategic use of the open concept.
I previously wrote about time management, where a busy designer experienced extreme randomness and distraction in open offices. She desperately wanted to reduce the strain to the degree of complete “digital” isolation.
Digital isolation becomes a new social contract. For the worker, they decide how long and deep to start into a message or email exchange. Whereas, face-to-face, one must engage in small talk and pleasantries.
Collaboration is the act of working together. But it becomes a question of what type of collaboration. Is the work accomplished synchronously like a meeting or scrum? Is collaboration more about asynchronous work with messages and posts?
Let’s face it; the closer you are to your colleagues, the more likely you are to collaborate with them. Broadly sociology suggests proximity predicts social interactions. The interaction begs the question: Are we confusing social for collaboration? The insidious dangers of open offices — sending messages from 20 feet away become the norm.
For designers working to solve this problem, there might not be a single best approach. However, interesting work from biophilia, nap areas, and on-site chef services continues to emerge in the office space.
Putting Alternative Worlds Into Action
Last year I worked with a growing Sales department willing to go along with an Alternative World approach. They were struggling to scale successfully, relying solely on select operational team members. These team members were efficient and smart, but every regional executive wanted to use them. Their popularity contest created employee burnout and delayed work.
Executives had not considered working with globally dispersed cohorts. They were not effectively leveraging operations teams in Australia, Ireland, and France. My team saw an opportunity for Alternative Worlds in the freelance industry.
The idea was simple, an internal, crowdsourced job board. We used Fiverr as our alternative model. Any account executive could post a sales proposal for review on the job board. When the account executive woke the next morning, her proposal will have updated terms and conditions and passed through Legal.
We implemented workflows, chatbots, and automated calendars to enable the process and instigate remote collaboration. With calendars, it automatically schedules teams for reasonable times to connect with the account executives, managers, and technical sales support.
Personalized chatbots provided answers for the globally dispersed team. When the account executive was away from their desk, at home during family time or sleeping, the chatbot could answer questions related to the work. For example, if the Ireland team needed to verify a detail, the bot had access to account-specific emails and documents to supply a relevant answer.
Conclusion: Heads-Down versus Heads-Up
I have worked in open offices of all kinds in the past 15 years. There were bean-bag circles and foosball tables, Zen gardens and fully stocked cafeterias — I enjoyed them all. However, it wasn’t until I began working remotely three days a week before realizing how distracted I was. This separated environment from the office led to some of my best work.
Not that the lone wolf mentality prevails, but the design community at large requires both heads down and heads-up work. Knowing when and where to collaborate is what it means to be an open office.
Perhaps our first step is figuring out an alternative modern workplace.
Want to learn more?
If you’d like to become an expert in UX Design, Design Thinking, UI Design, or another related design topic, then consider to take an online UX course from the Interaction Design Foundation. For example, Design Thinking, Become a UX Designer from Scratch, Conducting Usability Testing or User Research – Methods and Best Practices. Good luck on your learning journey!