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The Power of Open Work Spaces in Product Management

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

When it comes to managing products, communication and collaboration are key to a synergistic team and successful product. By nature, product management is a role that resides at the center of multiple other groups and functions with the organization. In fact, when I first considered taking this career path, I had come across an interesting image of a Venn diagram showcasing the product manager role at the intersection of customers, technology and business. While it may be a little simplistic, the overall idea is accurate. Product managers own the product(s) of which success they're responsible for. In order to achieve that success (and avoid the multitude of obstacles and "cliffs" that would lead to failure), PMs need to make sure everyone shares the same understanding of what needs to be achieved, as well as when, how and why it needs to be achieved.

Thankfully, I have been lucky to get my first experience in product management in a company that prides itself on its open workspace culture. I have yet to find a corner office or an office of any kind for that matter. However, not every company values openness, and even if they encourage a culture of openness, not all can afford building workspaces that match their culture. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that open spaces can be counterproductive, so I am by no means arguing that open workspaces are a one-size-fits-all solution. I am, nonetheless, arguing that for product managers, fewer walls (physically and metaphorically) can be advantageous. An open space can:

  • Provide channels for quick and informal communication.

  • Increase productivity (when used respectfully).

  • Enhance work culture.

  • Cost effective.

For most product managers, fostering an Agile work environment is a must and the first Agile principle is to "value individuals and interactions over tools and processes." A workspace where people are encouraged to interact and come forward with questions, clarifications, requests, and ideas is one that in fact values individuals and interactions.

Addendum 1

The evidence referenced earlier which suggests that open spaces do more harm than good poses two questions:

  1. Are the negative effects that were used as evidence a consequence of transitioning to open workspaces or their misuse?

  2. Is there a way to take advantage of positive aspects of open workspaces while reducing (if not eliminating) their possible disadvantages?

Before I answer these questions, I would like to reiterate that open spaces are not a one-size-fits-all strategy. The argument in this post is that they provide some noticeable advantages to a product manager's working environment.

To answer the first question, we must first find ask, are negative effects such as reduced productivity present in all open spaces? Are there cases where the opposite effects took place? And if so, what made the difference between the two groups (those that benefited from open workspaces and those that did not)? The answers to these questions are no, yes and it depends. Some companies and teams have benefited from open spaces while others were damaged by them. The reasons for that are that open spaces are not a magic formula for increased productivity, communication and work fluidity but rather are a strategic decision that must thoroughly studied. For one, not all businesses or groups within the same business would gain from working in open environments. Furthermore, clear norms and expectations should be set and communicated. Open spaces can create chaotic environments with plenty of distractions but communicating a culture of openness should come with a fostering of a culture of mutual respect and flexibility as well.

Addendum 2

Amongst other things, the COVID-19 pandemic made us realize that employees are a lot more flexible and do not need to be at the office every day to work productively and complete their tasks. However, this might have come at the cost of open communication. For many companies and groups that thrived on their open cultures, adapting to the pandemic and the work from home environment was no easy task, yet technology made it much easier. It is important for product managers and leaders to encourage collaboration and communication within their teams. Some good practices I have found are:

  • Setting "communication catch-up times" every 1-3 hours:

On a full day of work and Zoom meetings, it can be hard to answer every email and message instantaneously. In fact, there might be times when that's the last thing you would do before calling it a day. I found that structuring my day in a way where I set 15 minute intervals frequently throughout the day to respond to emails and messages that I couldn't get to on time was very helpful. Obviously, this applied more to the more complex questions and requests.

  • Keeping lines of communication open:

Throughout the day, I will do my best to respond instantaneously when I can. For example, as I receive messages and emails. I will try to skim through them and find out if this is something I can respond to in a few seconds or if I should attend to it during the aforementioned catch-up time intervals. Another great practice I find, is to keep my status available as often as I can. I would much rather receive a message or email and respond to it later than have the sender wait until I switch my status from "do not disturb"/"in a meeting" to "available" to send their request; that is if they remember to by then.

  • Setting weekly catch-up meetings with key collaborators:

Finally, I think finding time every week to catch up with people you collaborate with the most and communicate any ideas, challenges or address any big items questions or pain points can be very useful to a product manager.

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