Are Private Offices and Closed Door Policies Making a Comeback?

In early 2017, one of my companies, BlackRock Construction, was finishing construction on a new Adam Hergenrother Companies headquarters. While we were in the home stretch, I gave a tour of our new office building to my team. Drywall was up. Windows were going in. And painting was about to start. The office building has it all – a mix of private and open offices, spacious conference rooms with great views, a state-of-the-art training room, and gathering spots like an open lounge, patio, and break room.

Designing and modifying the office building was a long, detailed process so my antennae were up when it came to functional workspaces and productivity. I recently read an article that got me thinking about the shift from open, collaborative workspaces to more private and quiet offices. For the past several years, it’s been all about the open door and open office for open communication. But how has that affected productivity? Is working in a shared space really the best way to get shit done? I’ve started to see a shift from shared to private spaces – particularly for CEOs, business owners, and leadership team members. Where once they were lauded for taking down their door and sitting with the rest of the team, they are starting to move back behind closed doors. Why? Two main reasons: lost productivity and lack of confidentiality.

The Pitfalls of an Open Office

Let’s be honest. How productive is it really to sit in a room full of people to work? Now, there are exceptions to every rule. For example, 50 call center employees who all have noise-canceling headsets or 50 introverted programmers may be able to sit in a room together with no decrease in productivity.

However, the average office worker is interrupted every 11 minutes and it takes more than 23 minutes to refocus and resume working on the original project.

That’s a lot of lost time for the employer and employee and can also cause undue stress. In fact, instead of promoting more interaction, a lot of these people who work in bull-pens have started plugging in earphones and putting up “do not disturb” signs on the sides of their cubes just to get a few minutes of uninterrupted time. The issue is exacerbated for leadership and CEOs. How can you be expected to run a company when you are accessible all the time to questions, interruptions, small talk, etc.? It’s just not effective.

The other challenge, particularly for leadership, with being in a shared space is the issue of confidentiality. It is very difficult to have a phone call with another leadership team member about an employee’s performance, or about a new company policy, or even with the employee themselves, when every time you need to have those conversations, you’re hunched over at your desk whispering into the phone or having to find a conference room to pop into to have the conversion. Again, these open offices mean lost productivity and breaches of confidentiality, not to mention, it’s just plain awkward.

So how can you stay connected with your team and STILL get work done efficiently, effectively, and professionally? Take control of your space and time.

Private Offices or Work From Home

First, get a door and close it. When you are working on a project or you have a meeting – close the door and get to work.

When you are available and open to drop-ins, open your door. Pretty simple, right? What will be more difficult is training your team to not interrupt when your door is closed if that is what they are used to doing. Use your EA as a gatekeeper or put a sign on the door. Do whatever you have to do to protect your time.

Remember when your professor had “office hours”? Not a bad idea. You could let your team and company know when you have scheduled office hours and be open for unscheduled stop-bys. Believe me, far fewer people than you think will use it. Usually, those time vampires who are stopping you in the hall or inviting you to get a cup of coffee are just looking for a distraction for themselves. I usually ask them to connect with my Chief of Staff to get on my calendar and you would be surprised how few people actually get in touch.

If you don’t like the idea of office hours, how about time blocking into your calendar certain days and times when you do a “walk around”? Those are short intervals of time that you control where you are getting the pulse of the organization and are open to the small talk and quick questions from your employees.

Of course, you should also be meeting strategically with your team members once a week with a clear focus. Cut down on wasted time for everyone.

No one likes to go to meetings just to meet. Your entire company likely has a ton of projects on their plate. Set an example and keep your meetings short, to the point, and leave with clear action items and decisions made. Your team will thank you and start implementing their own tactics to protect their time. After all, most of us do want to go home at some point in the day.

An open-door policy and shared offices spaces are idealistic, not realistic. The intention is admirable, but in practice, it falls short. You don’t want to shut out your employees and sit alone on your throne in your ivory tower, but neither do you want your entire day to be filled with distractions. That is not how to run a company.

There is a way to keep your door closed and communication open and it starts by taking control of your time. Set boundaries and encourage your team to do the same. People respect people who understand the value of their own time – it is a sign that they have clear priorities and are on a mission. That is a leader that others want to follow, even if they have to knock first.

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