Company Culture

3 Ways an Open Office Makes Me a Better Leader

3 Ways an Open Office Makes Me a Better Leader
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I have not had an office in more than 10 years.

When I founded my first startup, the office space was less than 600 square feet. Our small team sat together out of necessity. It didn’t take long to realize the value of this design as the forced exposure to outbound sales calls, inbound support calls and general office dynamics allowed me a daily, fully comprehensive understanding that was missing from my previous executive roles.

I’ve sat in this chaos since 2005. Three startups later, and I’m a better CEO because of it.

Here are three reasons you should ditch the office with a view, and sit smack in the middle of the troops.

1. Total immersion produces right moves.

I'll admit that working alongside everyone is unconventional, but it allows for total immersion in the business.

Instead of hearing about what is working and what it not, you actually experience it. This is particularly useful when leading a startup because the very nature of a startup - frantic pace and finite capital -- demands a highly iterative culture, where dog years are the norm, and rapid decision making is crucial.

The learning, progress, errors and failures stack up fast, so greater proximity and direct exposure puts the leader in a better position to steer the iterations, and make the right bets.

In ShippingEasy’s early stages, the support team’s average call time clocked a material increase.

The numbers suggested additional hires to maintain the customer experience. Having my desk at the heart of the support hub exposed the real reason for the longer call times. I noticed our team was constantly on hold with a partner’s support team to resolve suspended accounts in their system.

Our call time increase was merely the incremental time our team waiting for the partner’s team. I reached out to the partner, and we created an express hotline, which immediately eliminated these incremental minutes.

If I would have simply relied on and trusted the numbers and the reports from afar, we would have hired additional people, and incurred unneeded costs. Instead, having personally witnessed the calls, I was able to resolve the issue, as well as decrease our team’s frustration by eliminating long hold times.

Related: 8 Tips for Staying Healthy in an Open Office

2. Keep a finger on the mood.

Every good idea needs a crash hot team to successfully execute it. In a startup, for example, where survival is questionable, that crash hot team needs a plugged-in leader.

Having a desk on the floor elevates the leader’s senses with what the team encounters and combats daily, such as challenges, fears, wins and moods. Keeping track of moods can make the difference between a slump and a milestone.

Being in the thick of things, I realized there was growing tension between the sales and product teams. Partly caused by the loud music featuring repetitive Top 40 hits that kept the sales team energized, but nearly sent the engineers packing.

I also experienced first-hand, the lack of appreciation each team had for the other’s challenges. The exposure from the floor allowed us to bridge the gap, and create genuine empathy for both sides. Being so close to the situation, we not only brought the two teams together, we were also able to physically change the office by putting up a thick curtain that offered a bit more privacy, and allowed each team to create their own environment.

Leaders talk a lot about the value of their people. The best way to leverage that value is to genuinely understand and appreciate those people by living in their world. Moods are an important factor to monitor in order to get the right outcomes.

Related: Think Privacy for Open Office Layouts That Work

3. Give a positive impression.

Being engaged in what’s going on leaves a positive impression on the team.

For those that think having an executive working in the middle will be perceived as meddling or micromanaging, well, that has not been my experience. You are there to learn, support and act.

You can’t fake your care factor. Being on the floor will ensure it is well-honed and genuine. It’s the most natural way to insure the care factor. Hearing something at arm’s length about an upset customer, a missing feature or the temperature in the conference room is much easier to ignore than when you witness the meltdown, hear the churn, and see the beads of sweat.

One of our salespeople had applied for four jobs, and ShippingEasy was the only company that didn’t grant him an interview.

He was miffed by this, so he walked in the door unannounced. I greeted him. He thought I was the office manager, which was fine with me. I was impressed with his initiative.

After we brought him onboard, he told me that despite receiving four out of four offers, he chose ShippingEasy because of the impression my greeting made on him after the sales manager told him I was the CEO. If I was stuck in an office, oblivious to the things going on, I would have never met the person, who would eventually become a top salesperson.

Related: 9 Rules of Open-Office Etiquette

ShippingEasy was recently acquired by Stamps.com for $55 million. The acquisition will afford us plenty of extra benefits, but an office for me won’t be one of them.

We will continue to operate independently, and I will continue to work alongside my team. It is important to be where the action is so I can continue to learn and absorb exactly what is going on from the frontlines.

My gut instinct is honed as a result of all of the exposure. Do I lose productivity by being in such a loud, chaotic environment, where scooters whiz past me and the music is so loud I can’t think - probably. But, my view is that I make up for that in the depth of understanding I gain on what the customer and my team needs, likes, wants and is blocked by. You can gain that valuable understanding as well by converting your office into a nice, pretty storage room.