The Wall-less Office

Last week my colleagues and I at the Drucker Institute moved back into our office, which earlier in the month had been redesigned, top to bottom, by Herman Miller (MLHR). It's a beautiful facility, the perfect blend of form and function, featuring 140 new pieces of furniture that are flexible, mobile, multifunctional (with storage cabinets that double as benches, for example), and environmentally friendly.

Still, my favorite detail is this: There are no interior walls. Eight of us sit all together in one large, sunlit space, without any obstacles in between. We were configured pretty much this way before, but, as the boss, I'd had a work area enclosed by partitions. They've now been tossed away.

Far more than symbolism is at play here. With no walls, my team and I communicate in precisely the ways that Peter Drucker advocated. In fact, our 1,400 square feet of openness is, I'm convinced, a major driver of our results.

One of the most crucial things that any leader can do, Drucker wrote, "is to build the organization around information and communication instead of around hierarchy."

Knocking down walls is the perfect way to achieve this. Not a day goes by in my shop when an idea isn't honed as follows: One staffer is talking with another, wrestling with a particular challenge. Another overhears what they're saying and weighs in. A fourth person then becomes engaged and offers up an altogether different perspective. Out of this ferment, some of our best innovations have been born.

Free-Flowing Dialogue

Just this week, for instance, we decided to refine our efforts to attract readers to our blog, the Drucker Exchange, after a semi-spontaneous discussion broke out among three of us; a co-worker's ears pricked up a bit later and he joined in, pushing our thinking even further. For me, as the supervisor, the best part was that two of my employees had initiated the conversation, and I was able to listen to them first—just as Drucker prescribed.

"Downward communications cannot work and do not work," Drucker declared in his 1973 classic, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. Initiatives from the top, he added, have a shot only if "they come after upward communications have successfully been established." They must be "reaction rather than action; response rather than initiative."

At our small university-based think tank, brainstorming in this fashion is part and parcel of the trade. But even the largest corporations can benefit from being imaginative with their space. In the late 1990s, when Paul O'Neill was the chief executive of Alcoa (AA), he constructed a new headquarters with a largely open floor plan. Traditional offices gave way to 81-square-foot work areas—complete with "pass-through portals"—for most employees, O'Neill included.

Typical office layouts, with their nods to status, "are a barrier to the notion of collaboration, and they 'put people in their place' everyday," O'Neill says. A pecking order is "established by access to sunlight, square feet of space, proximity to 'important people.' I wanted to give physical expression to the idea that 'if you work here, you are important, but no more or less important than anyone else who works here.'"

Eschewing Formal Jurisdictions

For Drucker, the very essence of teamwork is "communications sideways," as "people of diverse knowledge and skills … work together voluntarily and according to the logic of the situation and the demands of the task, rather than according to a formal jurisdictional structure." The free-flowing dialogue that emerges naturally from physical proximity only increases the chances for this kind of cooperation.

Another who believes strongly in this approach is Carlos Brito, the chief executive of Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD), who hasn't had his own office for more than 20 years. He shares a big table with his direct reports.

"We cherish informality and candor and encourage colleagues to bring ideas to the leadership team and to each other on the floor and even in the hallway," Brito told me. To facilitate that, the giant beer maker has "people of all levels sitting near each other so that we can all learn from each other and so that leaders and managers can stay close to the day-to-day work that their teams are doing.

"It's also more efficient to communicate more openly and on the fly," Brito says. "Meetings are a necessary … part of business, but I've found that oftentimes you can get more accomplished with a five-minute conversation in the hallway than an hour-long meeting. You cannot schedule a five-minute meeting in Outlook."

No Place to Hide

Brito perceives other advantages, too. Employees who work in a common area are apt to learn best practices from each other. What's more, an office without walls increases individual accountability. "There's no hiding in an open workspace," Brito explains. "Because everyone sits in the open, it's easier for people of all levels to recognize the high performers and the lower performers day to day, not just occasionally at big meetings or during performance reviews."

There are times when a little private space is required, of course. A few people in my organization put on headphones when they need quiet. It's also quite common for us to step outside onto the patio to take a phone call from a spouse or to speak confidentially with someone. But this minor inconvenience is greatly outweighed by the pluses of constant personal interaction—especially in an age when many organizations are drowning in data.

"Only direct contact … can communicate," Drucker noted. "The more we automate information-handling, the more we will have to create opportunities for effective communication."

Drucker once famously remarked, "The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said."

Undoubtedly that's true. But we also shouldn't forget: There's a lot to be gained, as well, from hearing what is being said by the person right next to you.

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