The open-plan workspace may be the biggest boon to productivity in decades because it fosters collaboration, innovation and creativity among employees. But plenty of bosses stumble and even fall when it comes to managing effectively in today’s team-centered set-up.
Many leaders want to excel at collaboration, but instead are stuck in the behavioral patterns that worked well for them in the hierarchical and authoritative org structures where they first cut their executive teeth.
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Carol Kinsey Goman, a management coach and career adviser, says that when these leaders “move to today’s collaborative environment, leadership – instead of being about power, status and authority – becomes more about engaging people, about getting workers to contribute, about building bonds and relationships for success.”
The transition, however, hasn’t been easy for many – and workers everywhere know it.
Goman recalls how one executive royally messed up at a weekend retreat for his team. “People were dressed in their khakis, their jeans, all the other informal clothing that are typical at retreats,” says Goman, who was sitting in the background.
Then in came the exec – dressed as if he were about to attend a boardroom meeting in 20 minutes.
“He had the power tie, the briefcase, the Rolex watch, the Gucci – the whole bit. I saw what happened the minute he entered the room,” says Goman. “He was late, first of all – so, non-verbally, he was signaling that the meeting wasn’t really that important to him. Second, he came in dressed like he was in charge, which is fine if that’s the message he wanted to send.
“But he started out by saying, ‘I’m so glad to be here. We need all of your contributions, all of your collaborative work in order for us to hit our goals.’ The problem was,” adds Goman, “his words were derailed by the way he looked. And then, third, he stood at the head of the table, which again signaled that he was absolutely in charge.”
The workplace as a central location for collaboration isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, studies such as The Smart Workplace in 2030, by global manufacturer Johnson Controls, show that flexible workplaces will continue to respond “to a complex and competitive world [that is] focused on collaboration, innovation and creativity.”
While circumstances will vary, here are seven smart tips for managers (and the rank-and-file, for that matter) to succeed in today’s open-plan environment:
1. If you want other people to speak up, listen closely and use eye contact when they’re talking. “Face them – with your shoulders, your feet, knees, hips,” says Goman. “When you start to turn parts of your body away, even your feet, well, it looks like your feet want to leave the room, which is usually the case. Instead, align your body toward people.”
2. Remove barriers between yourself and others. That means laptops, briefcases, papers, books, purses – and smartphones.
3. Expand your presence, rather than compress yourself. “Women in particular tend to hold their arms tightly to their bodies.” Instead, take your place at the table, as it were. Demonstrate your involvement to those around you.
4. Dress as a member of the team, which you can do effectively no matter what your role.
5. Try sitting in the middle of the table, rather than instinctively grabbing the head spot.
6. Know how you come across to others – and adjust it if necessary. Allow yourself to be videotaped and examine the results, Goman advises. “I’ve had executives tell me afterward, ‘Hell, I wouldn’t hire me,’” she says. A third party such as a career coach or valued colleague can share advice and insight.
7. Show empathy. Younger employees in particular, says Goman, who are so adept at technology, may not always have the body language skills that can help them succeed in a collaborative environment.