The Great [Open] Space Debate

One of the hot topics today is workspace. Regardless of your view of open, modern workspaces – love them or hate them – we all can recognize that the nature of work continues to change. In today’s culture, work is no longer a place you go — it’s what you do. People do business in a variety of places — onsite with clients, in the airport, at Starbucks — not necessarily 9 to 5, five days a week in a dedicated office. In fact, our physical workspace is a key culture component — with the ability to provide an intentional way of bringing all types of people together — across generation, gender, background, and function.

Do open spaces drive innovation and collaboration or do they prompt colleagues to don headphones in an attempt to tune out ambient noise?

Done with intention and properly, I assure you it’s the former! While workspace modernization initiatives are tricky to implement successfully in any industry, there are particular challenges that insurance companies face based on their home office/agency models.

That said, there are also unique opportunities that modern workspaces can offer in this decentralized world, where advisors often spend a good chunk of their time on the road. Insurance leaders — regardless of their business stage or size — who view workspace as an asset and an enabler can capitalize on these workspace improvements.

So what should leaders who are contemplating such a change consider?

What’s Your Goal?

First and foremost, a clear end-state must be understood before proceeding with any plans. There are many reasons to consider transitioning workspaces. Leaders – or whoever is driving the decision – need to be able to articulate what the ultimate goal is:

  • Smaller physical footprint to effect cost savings?

  • More flexible work environment?

  • More attractive physical space for customers?

  • Space that better leverages technology?

  • Cool vibe that attracts next-generation talent?

  • Way to provide on-site opportunities for a dispersed work force?

Architects and designers create beautiful spaces, but that’s only the beginning. We take a holistic approach to the entire process from the perspective of those who will be affected – from preparation, to transition, to pull-through. Our focus is on creating an environment that optimizes the way your people do business and helps them to work better – a space that promotes teaming, collaboration, and leverages the physical environment for recruiting and business development purposes.

“When leaders communicate the value of the space beforehand, proactively help workers acclimate, and give employees leeway to adapt the space, organizations are much more likely to reap the benefits of the investment in redesigned workspaces.”

- Brandi Pearce, Director of Team Performance and Research at UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business

Common Mistakes

Programmatic changes around space often fail to include:

  • Preparing leaders/colleagues for the change,

  • Supporting them through the transition, and

  • Optimizing and sustaining those changes to improve engagement, branding and the customer experience. 

“The redesign of space is a process - not an event.”


The redesign of space is a process - not an event. It starts with asking the right questions and ensuring that your business has the right representation at the table. For example, will new work practices be designed and implemented to ensure that the new space – and new technology – are improving productivity? Are senior leaders on board with the changes and are they on point with consistent messaging as champions of change? Do employees feel the changes are being done FOR them, not TO them?

Integrating all these considerations into the design process can help leaders avoid the all-too-frequent missteps.

Once the end goal is established, vetted and endorsed, the planning begins. For large-scale changes, a comprehensive roadmap must include Planning and Project Structure, Workstream Focus Areas, Leadership and Management, Easing Into the Workspace, and Culture/Work Practices. For smaller businesses or for more minor space refresh initiatives, a more streamlined process is appropriate.

The Role of Change Advocates

Change advocates – individuals who are engaged to support the change experience within their groups – can make or break an initiative. These individuals are selected by leadership and provided information about the move process and schedule. Their role is to be an informal source of information to answer employee questions, keep their “finger on the pulse” of the group’s experience and share information with leadership and head office.

Change advocates support the workplace transformation in two key ways:

  • They serve as a two-way feedback conduit for employees within their group by capturing and sharing back concerns, questions, opinions, and ideas; and

  • They actively communicate new information and serve as resource for employees in their group.

“I’ve spoken with more people in the past three weeks since we moved to the open floor plan than I have in years!”

– Senior Division Head, Global Pharmaceutical Co. at a recent Town Hall 

Be Poised for Success

It’s often said that anxiety is merely the mismatch of expectations. So taking the anxiety out of a transition to open workspace necessitates extreme planning – and hyper communication with senior leaders, middle managers, and individual contributors.

One middle manager at a Washington, DC-based public relations firm told us that his move to open space was done largely in a vacuum – without guidelines or protocols. Some of the big issues on day one post move were around things like headphones – are they allowed? Encouraged? The etiquette issues are critical and yet often ignored, as was the case this manager described. He and his team were not provided with best practices around speakerphone use or general voice volume. And is chatting with a colleague – e.g., collaborating spontaneously – okay, when you are next to someone who requires concentration to do their work? He also points to the importance of creating enough private spaces for personal and client calls.

Configured properly and with lots of up-front planning, modern, open spaces can allow for a variety of work styles — focused heads-down work, group meetings, private consultations and open collaboration.

With that said, the best way to ensure that individuals are well-prepared for the new environment is through frequent communication and by remembering the little things, like furnishing them with open floor etiquette tools and protocols that will make them comfortable and productive in the new setting.