The future of companies is open, and it is not about the office plan

The future of companies is open, and it is not about the office plan

There has been a paradigm shift, for better or worse, in office design towards open-plan areas fitted with a wealth of communal, non-traditional work areas.

There is mounting evidence though to suggest that they are ineffective. But they do reflect a much more radical, and important, shift in the way organisations are building internal structure – and it has nothing to do with the furniture. The future of office plans may include walls, but the future of offices will almost certainly have far fewer barriers.

That is because a growing body of research is pointing to the power of collaborative teamwork, requiring a transformation in the structures of management and human resources within companies. The shifts are much more significant than just physical spaces; they require a fundamental rethinking of how work itself is allotted and managed at every organisational level, starting with the C-suite.

Replacing hierarchy for team empowerment

Focusing organisational structure on teamwork, rather than relying on traditional hierarchies, can be a powerful tool for motivating employees and catalysing creative approaches at every level and nearly every stage of the project development process. Take, for instance, new thinking about setting goals. In a traditional setting, goals and targets are hammered out in the boardroom, among the company's leadership. Then begins the cascade down process throughout the organisation, leveraging different levels of management to set the goals and targets for the next level down – and motivate progress toward achieving them.

This process of “we tell you what to do” is not exactly engaging people to bring in their own ideas, initiative, potential and creativity and can even be a barrier to collaboration. Creating the spark of motivation for a plan handed down by executives continues to be many managers’ biggest challenge. But the emerging science of target-setting puts an end to that struggle by inverting the process: rather than disseminating targets from above, it is more effective to generate them from the ground up. Don’t get me wrong, vision and strategic milestones and direction still come from the top, but let the layers below spell out how they plan to get there and what they do first.

When employees are responsible for setting their own targets and developing collective targets with team members, they have a greater sense of stake in the work they are doing – leading to greater commitment and enthusiasm and, in the end, more productivity. As leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr says, sense of ownership over outcomes can also generate self-directed knowledge acquisition and network building in the process of articulating goals.

Potential performance gain

According to Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends, shifting from a leadership-oriented organisational structure to a team-based approach offers the potential for enormous performance improvement. The survey finds that 53% of respondents report a significant improvement in performance when team-based approaches are applied.

The trouble with implementing team-based and collective strategies at an organisational level is that building a robust and functioning model requires its own kind of expertise. Moving to an effective team-based structure can be hugely beneficial, but it also requires proficiency on the part of human resources professionals, who need to possess experience and familiarity with different approaches.

In some instances, it can make sense to implement tech-driven solutions to unveil what structures already exist within an organisation – it is often the case that informal teams arise within a company organically, and identifying them can be the first step toward determining whether or not they could help lay the foundation for a team-based structure, or whether it is preferable to start from scratch.

“Data about the networks people build when they work together can be used to increase engagement, productivity, creativity, innovation and boost organisation performance,” say artificial intelligence specialists Andrés Cardona and Laura Weis.

Transition through collaboration

Collaboration does not take place in a vacuum. In order to facilitate and encourage it, companies often need to rethink other aspects of their management practices and organisational processes. One important aspect involves reviewing existing reward policies to ensure they do not represent barriers to collaboration, as well as replacing management by financial targets with objectives that actually inspire people, and instilling a mentality that treats failure as a prime learning opportunity.

Moving to a new organisational structure can offer enormous promise, but as with any change, it requires a conscious and well thought through effort. However, in the long run, companies that can tap successfully into the creative energy of their workforce at every level will outperform their competition. Their people will be far more engaged in taking ownership for reaching objectives and in developing themselves the skills as and when the organisation needs them. It is kind of obvious - changing the structure of a company has much more lasting impacts on business than rearranging furniture.


Gérard Sinnes,