Walls in the office are one of the most dogged hangovers of management that silently reinforce workplace inequalities. They are invisible silos that separate people into those who make decisions and those who execute those decisions. While it seems innocuous, think of how many people dream of the corner office with the view, getting away from the “masses” in the main floor.
Even cubicle walls make it easy for people to spend years communicating with each other only through emails, even if they work in the same building. Companies now are moving towards open, common spaces like cafeterias or informal spaces around the office, like lounges, which serve to lower walls and reduce power distances. More radical companies do away with walls completely. This creates more social interactions that catalyze breaking down silos.
It’s Not Just The Walls
This transformation, however, begins within the leadership. In theory, it might sound like a simple practice to implement. But, in reality, this is one of the toughest transformations to achieve because there’s bound to be a lot of psychological resistance at all levels. Mid and top-level management could see this as a status drop while employees may feel that they cannot freely engage with each other.
What is important here is the concept of removing “silos”. An open office may not necessarily be the best solution to implement this in your company. There might be situations when focus or confidentiality is required and it is unwise to discuss everything at every level. The last thing the company needs is to demand walls be brought down for the sake of being brought down, ironically reinforcing the very attitude they are trying to tear down.
Below are two examples of ways in which Semco broke down silos – literally and figuratively.
Open Floor In The 80s
Semco broke down all its walls and replaced the boundaries with indoor plants. This sent the strong message that there were no more separations and that they were all together in this. This was also done in the 1980s, where such a move was quite radical because open floor offices weren’t so common back then.
A Note-taking CEO
One of the former CEOs of Semco was once working right next to an intern. It so happened that when the intern took a toilet break, he received a call. The CEO took the call for him and said, “Hi! How can I help you?” and the person calling said they needed to talk to the intern.
So, the CEO said the intern was not at his desk presently and asked, “What message can I take for him?” The person on the other end gave his message, which the CEO put down on a post-it note and left it on the intern’s desk. Then he left for a meeting. When the intern came back to his desk, he found the note left there for him by the CEO. So, imagine a company where the CEO takes down messages for the intern. It’s quite impressive when you compare it against the power distances that exist in most other organizations.
A Lot Can Happen Face-To-Face
Most work situations benefit when everyone can talk and listen to each other – facing one another and engaging in energetic conversations. When employees can connect directly with one another – not just with the team leader – it drives performance. When people can periodically go exploring outside their own team, seeking ideas from outside, bringing information back, the whole company benefits.