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Testing the waters: from cubicles to flexible floor plans

View of Bambi's open floor plan
Photo credit: UIT Communications

In January 2016, several teams from University IT (UIT) including Stanford Web Services (SWS), UIT Communications, and Technology Consulting Group (TCG) moved from the Laurel and Acacia modulars to their current home in Bambi modular, due to the construction on the ChEM-H/SNI building.

We sat down with staff from these teams and asked about their experience with moving to a new building, and trading in their private or shared offices and high-walled cubes for an open workspace in Bambi. They provided insights into the challenges and what they look forward to when they move to Stanford Redwood City.

Photo of the Bambi modular offices with cubical walls.
Bambi modular was previously designed with high-walled cubicles before it was renovated for UIT staff.

Contributors include:

  • Marco Wise, Senior Web Developer, UIT Communications

  • Linda Pilkin, Technical Writer, UIT Communications

  • Joe Knox, Web Designer, SWS

  • John Bickar, Senior Web Developer, DevOps Lead, SWS

  • Sara Worrell-Berg, Director, SWS

  • Noah Abrahamson, Director, TCG

How did the reality of the open office space align to your expectations going into it? Was it better or worse than you expected?

Linda: I was worried it would be very loud and distracting. It turned out that most of the time it’s very quiet. People remark on that often. With people working from home, or out to meetings, the space is usually about half empty, and people have been mostly good about taking longer conversations into one of the conference rooms.

Joe: I was mostly excited, because I thrive off the energy of others and I felt that a shared open work space would offer me the ability to quickly chat with teammates, as well as more broadly ideate with them organically. But, I also felt that the welcome culture of an open workspace would also lend itself to more disruption via “pop-in” and “walk-up” questions, which made me a little nervous. The experience turned out exactly as I imagined, actually. The things I thought I would enjoy about it, I enjoyed. The things that I thought would be difficult to navigate through (like the more frequent interruptions), were more difficult to navigate through. That said, I subscribe to the notion that any work space setting has both pros and cons. Overall, I am more of a fan of the shared open work space than not.

Now that you’ve been there for a few years, what do you perceive to be the top features of the open space?

Marco: The open space provides more opportunities for ideation, rapid iteration, and collaboration. You often overhear conversations that you can sometimes contribute to, which you might have missed otherwise.

Linda: I am an introvert and being in an open space forces me to interact with others, which is a good thing.

Sara: The opportunity to create and grow an office culture is a great benefit to the open workspace. For example, most Bambi staff enjoy lunch away from their desks, either at the communal table in the break area, outside, or somewhere else on campus. What originally began as a practical rule to ensure food smells didn’t bother others, ended up creating an office culture of healthy work balance and taking necessary breaks away from the computer.

What challenges do you encounter in Bambi's open space? How do you overcome them?

Marco: Some of the biggest cons are the audio and visual distractions, especially for those who are particularly sensitive to these kinds of disruptions or who have jobs that require intense focus and concentration. It’s best to get a good pair of headphones, ask the “offenders” to quiet down, or go find a conference room to work in. A white noise machine can also help too.

Noah: Privacy can be a challenge, especially as a manager when I need to work on sensitive information like performance reviews, salary information, etc. In these cases, I opt to do this work in a more private location, like a conference room. I also have a privacy screen on my laptop and lock my computer when I walk away from it. I know some of the other managers will do sensitive work like this at home.

John: Light and temperature variances can be tricky, with some staff preferring dimly lit workspaces and others liking a lot of natural light; similarly, some prefer cooler temperatures while others like it warmer.

What are you most looking forward to about Stanford Redwood City?

Joe: I’m excited to go from a “trailer” that occasionally hosts mice and other rodents, to a brand new building that offers more natural light, a plaza with games, and the opportunity to be in the same building with other UIT staff.

Bambi conference with AV technology that enables virtual connections.
The Bambi conference room is equipped with AV technology that enables virtual connections.

Sara: I’m looking forward to a nicer and more impressive space for recruiting — something that will “wow” candidates and make them more eager to come to work for Stanford.

What advice do you have for others who will soon move from private offices to a flexible space at Stanford Redwood City?

Noah: I think developing tactics like open communication, setting ground rules, and working with your manager to set up a plan for telecommuting or other accommodations is a good way to overcome any challenges you may face.

Sara: Give yourself and your team time to adjust. For me, it took about a month. Recognize that some will adjust quicker than others and it’s important to listen well and have empathy for your staff.

John: Remember that your workspace is just one aspect of your job. There’s always going to be stuff you don’t like. Focus on some of the aspects you DO like, such as the relationships you’re building or the fact that you’re doing meaningful work, and also take advantage of the many amenities that are available to you to enjoy outside your workspace.

More tips and best practices for success in an open flexible floor plan

We took the open workspace tips and best practices shared by Marco, Linda, Sara, Noah, Joe and John and turned into an infographic.

Manager Toolkit, Working at Stanford