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If COVID-19 Hasn’t Already Killed the Open Office, It Should

Wisdom from the “guy companies hire after three or four management consultants have been fired.”

coworkers around a conference table

Recognized as one of the world’s most influential management thinkers, organizational psychologist Adam Grant has a lot to say about how COVID has fundamentally changed the way we work, forever –  from the look and feel of workspaces to the habits which inform the way that we interact. 

We recently caught up with Grant, a tenured professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, bestselling author, consultant, op-ed contributor to the New York Times, and one of Fortune’s 40 Under 40

Here are some highlights from our conversation with Grant, the self-described “guy companies hire after three or four management consultants have been fired:”

Kill the open office 

Love it or hate it, the open office has become a staple of office life. But even before the pandemic, aside from leading to people having to take more sick days, Grant says, open offices killed the ability for people to concentrate, focus, and get absorbed in deep work. “Ironically, in some open-office experiments when people are without walls and doors,” he says, “they actually talk less to one another face-to-face. And they end up emailing more — in part because they’re constantly getting overloaded.” 

He expects to see more clear physical boundaries that not only keep people healthy, but also allow them to do their work and collaborate when they want to, on their own timetable.

Don’t hire selfish people

Selfish people may be rock stars individually, but they tend to not elevate others and they’re generally not as loyal. This theory, according to his research, is the basis of Grant’s 2014 bestseller “Give and Take.” To mitigate the risk of packing an organization with “takers,” Grant suggests ways to determine if someone is extremely selfish before they even get hired, such as asking a prospective employee to name four people whose careers they have fundamentally improved. A taker, he says, will typically name people who are more influential and higher up the corporate food chain, a trait he calls “kissing up and kicking down.” Grant delivered a Ted Talk on this topic, which has been viewed more than eight million times. 

Just as important, organizations should take a look at their performance evaluation systems because, as Grant says, “The sad reality is that most organizations say ‘we want people to be collaborative and generous,’ but then they only measure and reward individual achievements.” This, he says, is a real disincentive to “givers” and undervalues people that work to make other people more successful. 

“What I’d like to see is performance evaluations, reward and promotion systems that place equal weight on whether you’re elevating the people around you and individual achievement.”

The sad reality is that most organizations say they want people to be collaborative and generous, but then they only measure and reward individual achievements.

Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take”

Don’t scare your employees into silence

Employees need to feel psychologically safe at work so that they can take risks and feel that they can ask for help, and raise concerns and problems without being punished. This is true more now than ever when growth, innovation, and new ways of thinking are so important. The worst thing a boss can say to employees, according to Grant, is, ‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.’ 

“I understand the sentiment, but it has a chilling effect because if you only hear about solutions you will never hear about the biggest problems that might be too complex or risky for any one person to speak up about, let alone solve,” he says. 

Instead, create a culture where people can voice problems even if they have no clue how to fix them. These canaries in a coal mine, Grant says, are frequently the ones without the skills or resources to solve big problems, but they have front-line insights that senior leaders may not have.  

That said, companies need to instill a culture of help-seeking, including providing ways for workers to find help from people outside their comfortable circle of colleagues. “People tend to go to people they feel comfortable with and trust, but those are rarely the best experts or the most connected people.”  

If you can find an alternative to layoffs, take it

Citing research from Organizational Science, one of the most rigorous journals in the management field, Grant says there’s decades of evidence showing that companies that avoid or delay layoffs (instead of taking a knee jerk reaction to events) on average end up performing better in the long run. Organizations should pursue alternatives “not just from the social justice component, but because when you do layoffs you often have to replace a sizable portion of the people you let go, not quite realizing how indispensable they were,” he says. 

Other negatives are the people left behind who experience survivor’s guilt and ask themselves, “Maybe it should have been me?” or the anxiety of, “Maybe I’m going to be next.”  That thinking can lead them to focus very narrowly on keeping their jobs instead of thinking broadly about innovating and adapting. Further, he says, the most talented people are the ones who are quickest to jump ship after a downsizing because they surmise that the company isn’t the place where they can build a secure future.

Kill brainstorming as we know it

Organizations should ditch old methods of brainstorming where several people get together in a room to bat around ideas. “Research shows people come up with more and better ideas when they are independent, alone,” says Grant. There are several reasons. First, the logistics of being heard. Not everyone can talk at once in a brainstorming session, which means some ideas won’t get heard. Second, people with good ideas may not speak up for fear of looking stupid. Finally, there’s the conformity challenge, something Grant calls the “hippo” issue where the “highest paid person’s opinion” rises above all others and everyone just goes along. “This creates convergent thinking versus divergent thinking,” he says. So what’s the alternative? He suggests having everyone independently come up with ideas and vet them collectively, a process he calls “brainwriting.” 

The more senior you are in your career, the more apt you are to overestimate the value of your ideas.

Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take”

The wisdom of the crowd, in particular one’s peers, is a better judge of which ideas are worth pursuing. That’s because individuals are not objective in evaluating their own ideas, and because senior people often reflexively look for a reason to say no. “The more senior you are in your career, the more apt you are to overestimate the value of your ideas,” says Grant. 

The personal and economic toll of COVID-19 has been great, but it has also presented businesses with a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent how they run their workplace. The winners will position themselves for success by creating an environment where employees are more innovative, creative, and collaborative.

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