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GenX Acclimates to the Open Office Workspace

You’ve probably heard both sides.

Open office spaces—you know, those hip new workspaces with unassigned tables and bench seating, couches, common areas, ping-pong tables and funky phone booths—are great.

Or alternatively, they suck.

For middle-aged professionals who had worked their tail off for more than two decades only to end up working at a random desk that may not always be available to them, it’s a struggle.

The GenX goal was to pay your dues. Maybe start in the mailroom, learn the ropes and show initiative. Then, work your way up the chain to get to that private office where you could shut your door (or slam it for effect). Now it’s all about getting in the door sooner to get your primo window seat before someone else comes in and takes it. Or maybe due to the way your team is structured you’re sitting in a location where you have zero privacy and 110% distraction, so you can’t get anything done.

Free coffee notwithstanding, many GenX professionals now find themselves sitting next to today’s college graduates and wondering, as David Bryne sings in “Once in a Lifetime”:

Well, how did I get here?

“Radio Factory-women in Labor,”  Union to Disunion , accessed December 30, 2018

“Radio Factory-women in Labor,” Union to Disunion, accessed December 30, 2018

With the uptick in open floor plans, open office settings can feel like old school factory floors at times, where everyone worked right next to each other.

The upside is you have the opportunity to show off your skills, collaborate with your teammates, bounce ideas off of them, and maybe even learn from those fresh faced twenty-somethings. And that’s not half bad. The challenge can be the feeling as if you’ve been demoted (even if you have a manager title), and the inability to focus because of the noise level.

In my current position with a well-known insurance company, I've helped oversee and strategize the layout and implementation of space in our redesigned offices. Furthermore, I spent 14 years in Chicago radio, and helped coordinate the consolidation of six radio stations under one owner, deciding how best to have employees work together. So I’ve been down this road before.

I'm also GenX.

I went from having a beautiful office with a view of Lake Michigan to sitting at a table in the middle of 100,000 square feet of space with a directional exit sign as a guidepost as all the desks look identical although it’s not meant to be a permanent seat.

Now, I will admit, the relationships I’ve created thanks to this environment have been helpful as I try to navigate the future of our space and how we can engage our employees. It allows me to take advantage of learning opportunities and network with employees I normally wouldn’t have met. But I find myself “hiding” to take calls, focus on work, and there are days when noise-cancelling headphones are helpful but they don’t stop employees from interrupting (*insert employee who raises hand to ear and mouths the words “are you on a call”).

What does the future hold for open office environments? Is it a matter of separating employees by the work that they are doing (we’ve done this, but there are still employees who would prefer their own office or cube for calls, and claustrophobic phone rooms are not the answer) or should we be walling up areas for louder and quieter needs?

It’s a work in progress.

These spaces should help you create and define your culture.

Camaraderie, accountability, empowerment and having your employees highly engaged is critical to success. These new layouts encourage that but it doesn’t work for everyone. There is a learning curve whether employees are GenX, Baby Boomers, or even Millennials.

So how do we prepare our workforce and set them up for success in these new environments?

Perhaps the greatest exercise a company can go through is being transparent with employees and assisting them with the changes and challenges they will endure. It’s a journey, even once the spaces are completely built. Creating an open line for feedback and the opportunity to iterate to make things continuously better will make employees feel that their opinions matter, even if they are frustrated. It’s important for leadership and engagement leaders to be thoughtful in their communications and take the time to allow employees to acclimate to these spaces.

I feel fortunate to have been part of the first location at our company to try out this open seating concept. Our experiences are now helping other locations build and thrive. Every week I share our growing pains and success stories with our talent centers that are popping up across the country.

Still, sometimes I miss my lake view office. So don’t be surprised if some day you discover me in a coat closet taking the call.

Kelly DuffComment