21st-century employees need a 21st-century workplace

shutterstock_195619961Telecommuting aside, we all spend a lot of time in the office, so the design of this environment is a really big deal. Most companies have shifted away from the days when The Boss got the corner office and having a door you could shut was a sign of professional status. We have also moved on from the cubicle era, when “prairie dogging” was the easiest way to communicate with coworkers and people generally stayed hidden in their bland, beige cubes.

Today, it’s all about the open office plan. I sit in the middle of an open office myself. But when we define “open,” it’s more than just physical space. Defining “the ideal workplace” for the 21st century company is all about engaging employees, fostering transparency, and giving everyone a voice. The old-school model of executives being safely tucked away in closed offices no longer makes any sense. Younger workers, in particular, wouldn’t stand for the implied hierarchy and lack of transparency suggested by such a floor plan.

Since my company is driven by innovation, decisions often get pushed to newer employees, many of whom are millennials. My ideal workplace is one that meets the needs and preferences of this demographic while also promoting our values of transparency, innovation, and getting stuff done. While we’ve made a concerted effort to design a physical space people enjoy, the intangibles are much more important when it comes to maintaining an awesome work environment. It just so happens that the open office design supports our values by facilitating a certain kind of vibe around here. Here’s what I mean.

Empathize, learn, and open up
It’s hard as a leader to build empathy for your team if you’re hiding behind an office door. It’s also hard to learn from your super-smart colleagues if you’re walled off from each other. Despite the criticisms, open offices can’t be beat when it comes to serendipity, i.e., those times when you happen to overhear someone else’s conversation or catch a glimpse of someone’s laptop screen and realize you can contribute to their project, they can contribute to yours, and you’d all be better off pooling your efforts.

This reaches our customers too. When various departments co-mingle, they can share best practices more fluidly and deliver better experiences for the instructors and students in our online learning community. Spontaneous conversations can yield the most impactful product improvements, so it’s crucial to welcome ideas from anyone and everyone.

It’s also important that people feel safe talking about their failures so they (and everyone else) can learn from these experiences. For management, that means being genuinely approachable, open to receiving honest feedback, and supportive of their teams.

Take ownership and get stuff done
People feed off the feeling of accomplishment. Managers and leaders should recognize this applies at every level. In an open office, it’s just that much easier to share successes across the company, and we make sure people are given the chance to achieve and be recognized.

As a company composed predominantly of bright, motivated millennials, we’re constantly putting people in positions where they are empowered to take decisive action even though they may not have past experience to guide them. We want employees to reach beyond their comfort zones, but we make sure to support them and remove their worries about taking a major fall.

When people get that great feeling of taking responsibility for their work and results, they’ll naturally want to take ownership on future assignments. This value is on display all around our office, all the time, and it’s really empowering.

Innovate and show passion
Our success is built on a shared mission and solid teamwork. Anyone can have a rough day or face burnout, and it can be reinvigorating to surround yourself with passionate, imaginative people who remind you why you’re here. We embrace innovation in all its forms—from deploying technology in creative ways to devising a nontraditional employee review process that’s a conversation, not a judgment day.

I think innovation and passion are closely connected, which is why it’s so important during the hiring process that we identify people who are fiercely motivated and committed to our mission of helping people around the world build the lives they imagine for themselves. Passion alone won’t get us there, but when that energy is paired with curiosity, experimentation, perseverance, and fresh ideas, nothing can stop us. It’s the fuel that runs throughout our office.

The “ideal” workplace is whatever engages employees and promotes company values. For our company, that’s space where ideas can flow freely and everyone feels connected to others striving toward the same mission.