4 Communication Keys for Remote Teams

Remote teams should be more productive. They benefit from an empowering sense of freedom, and enjoy a healthy work-life balance. They can also feel isolated, left out, and struggle with collaboration and time zones. Yet there are recent, newsworthy examples of companies dragging their remote workforces back to the office - citing productivity and culture issues.

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Still, the amount of remote workers increased 159% between 2005 and 2017, according to U.S. census analysis by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs.

This dichotomy is based on an obvious but crucial factor - communication. A broad and general topic that requires nuance. 

Focus on these four areas of communication for remote work success. 

Remote Work Role Description(s)

Miika Härkönen was a senior IT manager in Finland. He decided to escape the Finnish winter and work remotely from Spain for six months. After speaking with his boss, the first step was to write an updated version of his job description. This document detailed his responsibilities, which included managing a team of 20, and how he would accomplish each task while being away from the office. 

The arrangement was successful, and a company first. Granted, Finland is one of the world’s leaders in flexible work. But this situation occurs often in a less publicized way all over the world. I took the same first step when I arranged a two-month remote work trip overseas several years ago (which was also a company first). 

Here’s how this role description write-up addresses company stressors. 

Situational Leverage - A remote work contract isn’t about working in pajamas or taking afternoon siestas. Build trust with employers by explaining your situation. It could be based on childcare, family member health or a brutal commute. Don’t single yourself out for special treatment, but show why remote work will improve work abilities and overall quality of life. 

Manager Anxiety - Managers who are weary about letting employees work on their own could just be missing details. Presenting a long-form report with production expectations and how your duties will be fulfilled is beneficial.  

Logistics - Lastly, and most importantly, a job description explains the operational logistics of a remote work situation. For example: 

  • Explain how your workspace covers all required technology needs. 

  • Who will “drive” recurring meetings if you’re the only remote member. 

  • How interaction on projects will change, for instance changing to a daily check-in instead of weekly meeting (as less interaction will occur during the day). 

Remote Work Policy Document 

A remote work policy is the ultimate tool for effective enablement. It must be the single source of truth. Typically, a “policy” coincides with “rules.” A remote work document is much more than that. It builds layers of trust for everyone involved. It increases transparency with the hiring process and even attract recruits who are vetting dozens of potential positions. 

The must-have components include: 

Fairness - First and foremost, a baseline of trust and fairness needs to be established. For teams that are split between remote and in-office workers, it can be an uneven playing field. In-office workers get the benefit of face time, according to University of California, Davis researchers. They found managers were 25% more likely to unconsciously attribute traits like “committed” and “dedicated” to those they see on a daily basis. Remote workers will naturally send trivial emails or engage in “status hacking” if they face this predicament. Establish a level playing field in writing to avoid these issues entirely. 

Expectations - There will be overlap with these expectations and the job description write-up. But there should be universal standards for work hours, availability, etc. Expectations go both ways. For instance, if remote workers don’t receive feedback in a timely manner, it hurts their productivity. Set specific guidelines for project management and meetings. 

Equipment - The required equipment, tools and general environment should also be documented. Some companies allow employees to be work-anywhere digital nomads with just their laptop and an internet connection. Other jobs require a quiet workstation where they’re available for undisturbed calls throughout the day. 

Productivity Communication

While a role description and remote work policy are long-form and living documents, the next two forms of communication are of an ongoing and daily nature. 

First, it’s well past time to acknowledge that there should be no productivity drop off with remote employees. Studies have shown evidence of a productivity boost. 

Ctrip, a chinese travel website, analyzed their workforce for 9 months as half of their call center employees worked from home. The remote workers completed 13.5% more calls, the company saved $1,900 per employee. Call center work is a natural fit for work from home situations given the quieter environment with less distraction. 

Another case study involving the U.S. Patent & Trade Office (USPTO) had the same conclusion. In this study, researchers looked at a Work From Anywhere (WFA) policy where there were no geographical requirements. The WFA workers had a 4.4% productivity increase which represents up to $1.3 billion of annual value added to the U.S. economy. 

These productivity boosts do not come without challenges. A study of 1,100 employers found 84% of remote workers let a concern drag on for a few days or more, and 47% admitted to letting issues drag on for weeks. Additional issues, such as a lack of trust among coworkers, are detailed in graphic from HBR.

Address these issues with management techniques for today’s age. 

Agile check-ins - Co-located teams have the luxury of being able to meet at a moment's notice. This is convenient but in practice can be unnecessary and distracting. Agile project management makes natural sense for remote teams. Put simply this means planning all team tasks for a one or two-week sprint. Use daily check-ins so everyone can report on what they’ve done, what they’re currently working on and any issues they’re facing.  

Long-form communication - Chat tools seem vital for remote teams but short form communication can lead to misinterpretation. Make sure there is a two-way stream of longf-orm communication. X-team, an agency of on-demand developers advise remote teams to keep digital journals in Slack. Team members post personal daily happenings, TIL’s (today I learned) and big questions into a channel for low-friction, high-value communication. At the same time, management should share long-form updates with the team as often as possible. This two-way steam of long-form communication is central to DocOps (and our software).  

Flexible (but sensible) hours - Most remote companies are concerned about getting things done and not that people are online during business hours. However for growth stage companies spread across different states or countries, it shouldn’t be a hassle to find people. Many remote companies offer flexible shifts but require people to work with some overlap with the headquarters. For instance, a San Francisco company would require remote workers to have 4 hours of overlap between 8 a.m. - 5 p.m (UTC-7). 

Culture Communication 

The final piece of communication for remote work relates to company culture. The isolation that comes along with virtual offices can make it difficult to create a sense of belonging, a strong indicator of employee morale and turnover rate. 

Video conferencing - The popularity of video conferencing is growing, and not just for remote teams.  A Forbes Insights report polled more than 300 executives and found  97% agree that video conferencing improves the sense of connectedness among remote workers, while more than half said video meetings are increasing among internal teams. 

In-person meetings - Scheduling in-person meetings is obvious and an industry standard, but cannot be overstated. It’s easier to brainstorm ideas and bond personally when in close physical proximity. 

Communication charter - Establishing norms for communication impacts the morale of remote workers. This includes things like time zone assistance so teams can communicate without worrying about disturbing each other at odd hours. It can establish how to set up time blocks so everyone has dedicated periods of focus during the week. Many large companies with a mostly or all remote workforce set up “pairing calls” using a Slack app for random or strategic pairings where co-workers video chat about anything and everything. 

To recap - write a detailed, long-form job description with details on remote work logistics. Create a remote work policy to eliminate confusion and attract top-tier remote talent. Use communication protocols and forward-thinking management techniques to enhance productivity. Don’t forget about occasional in-person meet ups and build company culture by making sure teams are communicating and connecting with each other. 

These four communication keys provide the basis for great remote work. 

How to Improve Decision Making and Conversation in Meetings

There’s plenty of information out there about meeting angst and agenda guidelines. It’s the main focus for meeting tech tools and content resources. 

What about what happens in the actual meeting? There’s usually a decision that needs to be made, and there’s always a group conversation. These two skills are important for meetings and nearly every aspect of life. 

Here’s how to improve these critical elements. 

Decision Making

The most meticulous agenda paired with a fully adopted system of meeting bylaws will not help with the crucial element of decision making. Meeting software tools produce loads of training and educational content with the goal of addressing this skill. 

Google executives famously rely on data to make decisions. Former VP Melissa Mayer discouraged the word “like” in meetings and instead encouraged people to use data-backed compliments or critiques. This can be a double-edged sword. Google over-engineered this idea to the point where they were testing 41 shades of blue to see which one performed better, which irked some designers. Despite this, being deliberate about your decision making process and criteria is a must. 

Leaning on data for decision making is a popular option because it’s the opposite of an emotional approach. Emotional decision-making is usually involved with our biggest regrets. But it’s also true that the emotional side of reasoning can’t be buried entirely.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio documented cases where patients suffer brain damage that removes their ability to use emotion when making decisions. Their lives are ruined despite their IQ and other brain functions being completely normal because they’re not able to make decisions. This demonstrates the importance of considering people’s moods, emotions and maintaining a positive atmosphere within every meeting room. 

Further, relying entirely on logic (or data) leads to analysis paralysis if logic doesn’t indicate a clear winner. For example, if logo design options have divided support amongst the team and comparative A/B test results. 

Whether it’s data, an executive to serve as final tiebreaker, an algorithm, etc. it’s important to have something in place to make decisions when a stalemate is hurting productivity. Also, facilitating friendly conversation and boosting morale will have an actual impact on your decision making. 

Better Conversation, Better Meetings

You can have time to prepare, set the right agenda, use meeting bylaws and it can all still go wrong. What actually happens when you physically or digitally get together is often overlooked, at least by so-called thought leaders on the topic. 

While much of the advice about meetings is experience-driven, opinion-based and more art than science, guidance for facilitating conversation is more objective. It’s an easier topic to study and thus provides more conclusions. 

There are several techniques for managers (or any meeting leader). 

Create a welcoming environment - If employees don’t feel like they have permission to share, complain or ask hard questions, they’re likely not going to share important details about a project gone wrong. You can do this by asking permission before questioning, and asking questions like:

  1. What do you think I need to know?

  2. Where are you struggling?

  3. What are you proud of?

Be aware of questioning sequence - With that said, you should pay attention to how your questions are sequenced. In “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman explained how questioning sequence can alter a respondents answers entirely. 

Students were asked how their life was going, followed by a question about their dating life. The answers were independent and not related. Flip the question sequence, and suddenly they felt worse about their life if they had a negative response on the dating question (which was asked first). 

This can apply to 1-on-1 meetings or status review meetings. If someone shares a negative sentiment on the initial question, the follow up question will likely be more of the same. Counteract this by focusing on the initial answer. Understand the why and how behind the reaction, before moving forward. 

Think like a negotiator - Hostage negotiators apply a simple, but effective 5-step process

  1. Active Listening

  2. Empathy

  3. Rapport

  4. Influence

  5. Behavioral Change

What happens in many meetings is people go directly to step four (influence), or skip one of the first three steps. It’s not enough to just listen, express empathy and demonstrate rapport to influence behavior or get people to listen and take whatever action is required after the meeting. 

There are also techniques for meeting participants. 

Mimic Appropriately - People are influenced by our movements and nonverbal reactions. MIT professor Sandy Pentland published an entire book dedicated to this topic. In one study, a presenter who purposely mimicked the movements of listeners was found to be 20 percent more effective. This isn’t something you would want to forcefully do, but understanding the movements and reactions of your teammates during a meeting will lead to more listening and togetherness. 

Active and Constructive Responses - Practice active and constructive responses whenever responding to someone. This means you are active with your body language i.e. maintaining eye contact. And constructive with language i.e. repeating part of their statement, then building on it.  

Compliment and encourage - If you want to be heard and listened to during a meeting, make other people feel good. Research shows that flattery is effective even when it’s obviously insincere. Being insincere isn’t the best habit to pick up, but find ways to compliment team members. 

Check out our other meeting-focused content to learn more about issues, solutions and how Topple fits in.

How Meeting Culture Affects our Workplace

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In 1975, the first-ever meeting between astronauts and cosmonauts took place during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Soviets and Americans shook hands through an open hatch and remained docked together for 44 hours. The meeting cooled Cold War tensions and ushered in a new era of technical and scientific collaboration.

That was the last successful meeting in history.

Ok maybe not.

But a general hatred or at least an acceptable level of disgust of meetings is one of the few common bonds of mankind.

Here’s some insight into how we got here and the status of business meetings today.

The Meeting Culture Problem

In 2005, a Microsoft study found more than two-thirds (71%) of respondents said their meetings during the week were unproductive. Twelve years later, similar research was published in the Harvard Business Review. Again, 71% of managers said their meetings were unproductive and inefficient. 

During this 12-year period, we’ve seen a lifetime’s worth of technological advancement. SaaS has exploded, high-speed internet is the norm and the amount of available tools to improve meetings and avoid them when unnecessary has increased exponentially. 

Yet the issue of unproductive meetings is still pervasive. Why? Let’s start with the obvious, no one likes them because they usually suck. We know the culprits. 

The “couldn’t have this been an email?!” meeting - The meeting is brief (thankfully). But covers a singular topic without any collaboration with the participants. From the participant’s perspective, it was unnecessary. From the manager’s perspective, they can’t confirm the email would be read, or even opened. So yes, it was necessary.  

The “amnesia” meeting - The meeting goes well, but it all goes downhill when an airborne form of dementia disperses through the room just before the meeting concludes. Whatever was said, is lost. Whatever was written, is unintelligible. 

The “BYOD” meeting - Surely we are professional enough to bring our laptop to a meeting for the purpose of taking notes or looking up relevant info - wrong. Laptops during meetings usually means “bring your own distraction” with multi-tasking, general tasks of distraction (social media, internet errands, etc) or chatting with coworkers...who are in the same meeting. 

The “remote conference bingo” meeting - If one or more remote employees are teleconferencing, you’ll often begin playing remote conference bingo. 

“Can you hear me now”
“You’re on mute”
Excruciating feedback noise
“Are you still there?”
FREE SPACE
Overtalking… “Sorry, go ahead”
Child and/or animal noises
“Can you repeat that, you broke up”
“Sorry, I was on mute”

The “wanderer” meeting - If casual conversation and camaraderie isn’t common in at a workplace, meetings become the only place for employees to interact. This turns meetings into watercooler sessions with rambling, off-topic conversations. 

The “lone ranger” meeting - By definition, meeting means: “the act of coming together.” So when one person spends the duration of the gathering to pontificate or deliver a one-way sermon, it’s not helpful. More importantly, it won’t deliver the desired result. 

Those are just a few common examples. Meetings can also be repetitive, lack context or direction, important people could be missing, or the whole thing can get interrupted by an unsolvable disagreement. 

We’ve all experienced these issues, and more than a decade of data confirms that people feel the issues above create unproductive outputs - so why is “meeting culture” still such an issue? Some argue it’s not. Meetings are a necessary evil for sharing important information. The problems are simply a byproduct of the system, but do not hinder businesses. 

However if you try to calculate cost for bad meetings, the numbers are astronomical. Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings Report estimated that two hours of pointless meetings per week equates to $399 billion of wasted money. Another frequently shared estimate says $37 billion. Similar to the issue of tribal knowledge loss, it’s hard to quantity this issue with an exact dollar amount. 

The Distraction Culture Problem

There’s another way to illustrate the problem, the cost of unnecessary distraction. 

Marketers, writers, developers, salespeople and executives all have one thing in common. We require dedicated periods of focus during the day to get things done. This is referred to as “deep work” time and a lack of it hurts productivity. This is one reason why the amount of remote jobs and remote work in general continues to rise, remote workers are generally less prone to distraction. 

A University of California study found it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to resume a task after being distracted. A click-tracking study of app developers found that only 10% of the time, were they able to return to their task in less than a minute after a distraction. 

These distractions can be avoided by scheduling meetings well ahead of time and having strict time guidelines. But we know it doesn’t usually work like that. 

The DocOps Culture

There are plenty of SaaS products focused on improving meetings with features such as calendar integration, agenda builders and automated follow-ups. Others rely on Microsoft Office products or Google suite to provide similar functions. 

They might save you time, and make meetings more enjoyable. But they’re not going to overhaul your organization. The DocOps system goes beyond just accepting the problems that meetings bring. 

Instead you can focus on getting to the underlying issue which causes ineffective meetings. This could be a lack of information sharing between departments, a missing central database of information or general confusion on what meetings should and shouldn't be. All of these problems are addressed through the documentation of processes and protocol. 

Identifying your meeting problem, and paying for or instilling solutions to help is a great start. But the rest of this series focuses on how to improve meeting agendas and decision making. 

3 Overlooked Keys to Employee Onboarding

I’ve had quite a few jobs. The shortest tenure of my career was a single six-hour shift at a famous pizza chain. I was offered a job as a delivery driver. But when I arrived, I was immediately thrown on the phone and asked to take orders. The system was easy enough, so I decided to stick it out with the hopes of realizing my delivery driver dream another day. Next, I was tasked with making pizza with no training, just by following a big poster on the wall. To top it off, I didn’t know how to estimate pizza delivery time. I confidently told every customer that their pizza would be prepared, cooked and delivered in a blistering 20-30 minutes.

Looking back, if they onboarded me properly, I would have stuck it out. I hate quitting. I love pizza. But the intense lack of context was too much - even for a naive teenager. 

It’s not just pizza joints that struggle with onboarding. In fact, only 20% of organizations have a comprehensive onboarding plan according to SHRM Foundation research

Here are three overlooked aspects of onboarding (and how DocOps can help). 

Importance of Day One

First day the job. The schedule usually consists of locating the bathroom and HR forms. Or the agenda consists of “drinking from the fire hose” where employees are pummeled with an ungodly amount of information. This stems from a traditional approach from decades ago when there was less competition and no LinkedIn. Workers weren’t likely to leave a job within the first months, or even years. 

Today, experts say 20% of employee turnover occurs within the first 45 days. First impressions aren’t everything, but they matter. A first day experience will stick in someone’s mind, good or bad. There are several methods for improving the initial experience. 

  • Day 0 - Too many new hires are told they’re expected to hit the ground running during an interview, then handed a stack of HR paperwork on their first day. There’s a better time for such tasks - after the offer letter is signed, and before the first day. This way employees can take their time, avoid typos and actually think about their tax and retirement options. Meanwhile, employers boost productivity by shortening ramp up time. 

  • Focus on the Individual - Research published in the MIT Sloan Management Review found an onboarding process that focused on the individual instead of the company reduced turnover by 32%. Some employers conduct an “entrance interview” or do team bonding exercises such as a “two truths, one lie” panel. These are low-cost, low-effort actions that could increase the lifetime value of employees. 

  • Team Socialization - Research in the Oxford University Press showed those who form social networks at work learn faster and perform better. There’s unlimited options for accomplishing this. Marketing agency Percolate uses a “buddy system” where new employees are paired with a seasoned team member who can guide them through the mundane while providing a window for honest dialogue. Other companies facilitate social connections with a team happy hour or employee scavenger hunts. 

  • Community Involvement - Cornell researchers studied 230 software firms and concluded that social involvement in the community (and with coworkers) is crucial for employee onboarding. Do this by coordinating volunteer events with charities, and making the event schedule public.

DocOps in Action: Socialization and team culture improvements is a major benefit of discussion through document reviews. The roundtable setting provides a platform for everyone to contribute in a natural way. For new employees, reviewing a document with new team members is valuable exercise. Learn more about DocOps.

Documentation > Training 

For employers, training and onboarding are often grouped together. While it’s certainly part of it, this rationale overlooks something that resonates with every type of manager - self-learning. Employees should be able to learn on their own, at any time. New employees are often left to peruse around without clear direction of how to get better or at least more informed. 

You can have the best training system money can buy, with leading software and well-paid curriculum experts - but one thing you can’t control is how a given individual learns. That goes for the speed in which they learn and the preferred format. That’s why enabling self-learning is so important. An available database of documentation allows new employees to learn about their job, and the company culture. Studies on which form of learning is most effective have mixed results - it depends on the individual. 

Of course, just reading documents alone isn’t going to be that effective over time. 

The DocOps review workflow is designed so everyone is encouraged to read, write and share. Document reviews provide a diverse learning environment, and eliminate something that is proven to slow down learning - multitasking and distraction. 

Possible onboarding documents include: 

  • Team (or Company) Charter - A new employee would benefit from reviewing a team charter document which includes background & context, roles & responsibilities, team operations, budget & resources and more. A smaller company or startup could use a company charter document in the same capacity. 

  • Role Description - What better way to establish accountability and transparency for a new employee, his team and manager than to review a document which defines all components of the job. 

  • Software Usage Guide - Many new employees must use an unfamiliar SaaS product. Reviewing the how-to’s, settings and standards is much more effective than learning on their own. 

Ongoing Onboarding 

If 80% of companies don’t invest in a formal onboarding program, it’s likely an even higher percentage don’t think about onboarding after the first six months of an employee’s tenure. This oversight can lead to confusion or even resentment over time. 

Situations such as promotions, lateral transfers, when someone takes on a bigger team or when the company experiences a merger, downsizing, technology changes and more all require a fresh introduction. This can’t happen with just an assigned trainer and training material. 

The DocOps workflow solves this issue by leveraging a living database of information. There’s still a need for the initial creation of the document, but instead burying within a storage system, it’s owned by the whole team. Thinking about onboarding as an ongoing initiative instead a one-time task helps with employee engagement which impacts employee retention. Similar to above, ongoing document reviews could include role description and team charter documents for employees who switch roles or teams. 

Cubicles, Open Offices, & Flexible Work: The Form and Function of Our Workplace

The cubicle office. Rows of tall walls separate workers with drab effect. The color palette always includes a shade of taupe, the color of moles. Or a bland mix of white, gray and dusty silver, the same used by your local penitentiary. And it provokes the same feelings. Your workstation is stagnant, with little room for customization. You spend your free time searching for landscapes and things to look at, yet spend the work day in confinement. Cubicle offices are morale-killing, disasters. 

The open office. Crunched in just a few feet from one, maybe two neighbors. You can hear them type, breathe, and telling you their bad jokes. Their sneezes are your sneezes. Any cross-office disruption might as well be Thor smashing his hammer through your screen. You throw on $200 headphones when you need to do anything besides send emails or chats. Work from home days are scheduled when, “you need to concentrate.” Study after study shows how distracted and unproductive you are simply because of someone else's decision to save money, save space or just to “be cool.” Open offices are productivity-killing, disasters. 

Both of these statements are true. How can both office types be so bad?  

The answer requires us to look at history, and the priorities of the past leading up to today. 

People replicate behavior and ideas when they’re deemed successful. They often do this without a deep understanding of the nuance or conditions that contributed to that success. Misapplication of these ideas brings erosion over time. 

Here’s how both of these ideas suffered that fate, and the best solutions for today’s workplace. 

The OG Open Office

We’ve gone through this cycle of love then hate with the open office before. The open office was revolutionized by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, some 80 years ago. The famed architect pioneered the open floor plan for houses before it was trendy, and did the same with the open office in 1939. The project formed with the perfect storm of ingredients. A modern-thinking businessman (H.F. Johnson Jr. of SC Johnson & Son Corporation), the tail end of the great depression and signing of The New Deal which led to a mass increase in the amount of jobs. Johnson specifically recruited Wright to, “build the best office building in the world.” Wright had already designed the Larkin Administration Building, which was known as, “the first modern office.” But that project was restricted by the available resources and technology. This time around he had the budget, fame, and an unlimited creative leash. Wright wanted to influence the workspace. He called boxy office designs of the time, “fascist.”  

Wright’s creation was the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. The design featured gorgeous dendriform pillars, bright pyrex ceilings and space, lots of space. A mezzanine level was included for manager offices. The layout provided the perfect blend of natural lighting, ample space and detail-oriented design. The office was a hit. Employees began having tea for an afternoon energy-boost, because they enjoyed working late hours.

The concept was copied again and again, but the derivatives lacked attention to detail. Plus, the cost of real estate and the amount of white-collar jobs continued to rise. Twenty years later, open offices were cramped and loud, as seen in “The Apartment” and “Mad Men”. This erosion of the original continues today with a fresh spin of “cool.” The distractions have proven to outweigh any potential communication and collaboration benefits. A 2018 Harvard Business School study found participants who switched from cubicles to an open office actually spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, so the perceived collaboration and communication benefit was nonexistent. They also spent significantly more time on email and chat opposed to work that requires critical thought and focus.   

We’ve all experienced the negative effects of an open office. There’s evidence of how much workers dislike them and an ever-growing collection of data on how they don’t work on offices with multiple levels. But these studies, and the reports that follow, fail to provide solutions. 

Are cubicles really the answer? 

The Cubicle Renaissance

 By 1967, another creative genius was on a mission to fix the tainted open office design and traditional walled office design alike. Inventor and academic Robert Propst was hired by the Herman Miller Research Corporation, a powerhouse in furniture design and research. Propst struck gold with the Action Office 2, a cubicle design that focused on quality materials, natural flow of movement and interaction without distraction. The creation took off after competitors released similar designs, validating the ingenuity.

At the core of Propst’s original creation was giving workers a sense of purpose. Everyone had their own space, he was the first to introduce pinboards where you could hang family pictures or important notes. Another genius touch was what ultimately led to the cubicle’s demise, each space was modular. Teams could alter their wall height and position based on the day, season or their own personality.

Over time, Propst and his counterparts were not able to control installation of their designs. The installations were controlled by managers who saw the modular function as something else - a cost-cutting method. 

Managers would implement the most cost-effective walls and material with little thought about workplace morale or productivity. This created the “cubicle farms” we know today, which include several variations of bad. Some cubicles are high-walled and restrictive, so collaboration is discouraged. Some cubicle plans smush people together, eliminating the benefit of privacy and ability to focus.  

Propst criticized penny-pinching executives who eroded his invention until he died in 2000, saying, “they make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.” 

A Lesser of Two Evils? Think Beyond 

What these two stories have in common is the blind pursuit of cost reduction will always have a negative impact on our work. Whether it’s a noisy, unproductive open office or a cubicle forest which suffers from the same issues it’s designed to address. But no matter how many hot takes there are about bad open offices are. This isn’t a simple problem that can be solved with an order of partitions. 

Business leaders have to look at their situation and ask, why do we have an office? For an increasing amount of companies, the answer is, “we don’t need one.” Elastic, the company behind Elasticsearch, went from launch to IPO with an entirely remote workforce. 

However, many businesses cannot operate on a remote basis, either for practical reasons or preference. There has been some research for comparing these office types. A University of Sydney study looked at more than 40,000 workers in 300 office buildings. They compared five types of offices:  enclosed private offices, enclosed shared offices, cubicles with high partitions ( >five feet high), cubicles with low partitions (<five feet high), and open office without partitions. Private offices were the highest rated for all sixteen factors which included privacy, noise level, cleanliness, air quality, temperature, and amount of light. The results were very close in multiple categories so the conclusion was less than conclusive. 

Gensler, a leading global design firm, conducted their own study of 4,000 office workers across 11 industries. They found the most effective office layout was an open plan with shared desks, but with barriers high enough so workers had to stand to see their neighbor. 

This illustrates how there is no indisputable solution. Each office setup, whether it’s for a startup or a new corporate branch, requires custom planning and analysis of variables.  

Fortunately, there are a few other tactics for creating positive and productive offices. 

Another Tool for Great Offices: Flexible Work 

Offices can be the best of both worlds. Workers can have individual spaces without losing important interaction time. Cubicles can be cool. But there’s a reason we don’t see many offices that resemble Frank Lloyd Wright’s open office masterpiece or Robert Propst’s AO-2 treasure - cost. Our history lessons prove that today’s application of open offices are not works of genius, but an effective way to save money. Especially for startups, office design and planning is not on the top of the priority list. Most office designs being used today probably aren’t fully optimized, even for mature businesses. 

But there’s another option for decision makers to consider, flexible work policies. 

Flexible work prioritizes getting things done over how it gets done. Many consider this a startup ploy to entice millennials with unlimited vacation time and kegerators, but in reality those with families and children benefit the most from flexible work policies. It’s also true that many flexible work policies are shot down by “butts in seats” managers who are incapable of measuring non-attendance based productivity. There are several initiatives in place by companies today, such as: 

  • Workations (part-time work during extended vacations)

  • Distributed teams, remote work 

  • Agnostic work hours

  • Flexible weeks or years (for hourly employees) 

  • Job sharing

Essentially, all of the above are a form of a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). This idea was published in the book, “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution.” It takes set office hours, office presence and vacation policy out of the equation. And measures performance, results or output instead. This occurs in quota-based sales organizations, and can boost accountability and fulfillment if applied carefully across an organization. 

Flexible work is not a push button solution. It requires critical analysis of business operations and how a workforce interacts. And it should not be confused with contract labor, or even “The Future of Work” we hear so much about. There’s nothing about flexible work ideas that is particularly groundbreaking or technologically advanced (besides that it’s easier to work remotely in today’s age). Flexible work is about thorough communication, crafty management and creating fulfillment in the workplace - the policies are simply a result of those ideals.  

One powerful success story shared by CEO Ricardo Semler in a past Ted Talk. He took over the Brazilian conglomerate SEMCO in 1980. He replaced managers who were stuck in their ways, then installed a policy of trust for all employees. Many of his Semler’s ideas resemble the “new-age” flexible work ideas listed above. His initiatives were:  

  • Ability to trade salary for extra PTO days

  • Flexible work shifts based on commutes and office proximity

  • One-week of shadowing before hire

  • Managers were reviewed by employees

  • Transparent salaries

  • Open board meetings and votes

A compelling lesson was the idea that leisure is not the opposite of work. Our leisure time is spent doing things we enjoy. Idleness is the opposite of work, and people don’t enjoy idleness e.g. being confined to a cubicle or being crippled by distraction. Or being bed-ridden from a sickness. 

If work becomes a place where we can get things get done, while feeling fulfilled and happy - it has a much more powerful effect than any type of office floor plan.