Company ditches cubicles for a wall-free culture. Would you?

Irdeto, a content management and security company, eschewed individual desks—and desktop debris—for an open environment where people actually (egad!) talk to one another.

When content management and security firm Irdeto’s Ottawa office moved from a standard cubicle farm to a space with no desks, only long tables where employees can set up laptops, 33 private focus rooms, and 15 meeting rooms, employees tended to have the same question: “Where do I put my stuff?”

What the employees have come to discover over the past few months, says senior marketing communications manager Lisa Spencer, is that they never needed it. What they did need, however, was a more open setting to share information.

“Our global culture is so small, and it’s about the immediate exchange of ideas,” says Spencer. “That’s—kind of on a micro level—what we’re doing here. We’re mimicking what’s going on in the world.”

As Senior Vice President Martin Sendyk put it to the Ottawa Citizen: “If you’re a coal miner, you work in a coal mine. If you’re a pilot, you work in a plane. If you’re a knowledge worker, you share knowledge.”

Eliminating desks

Irdeto’s office is just one out of 20 the company has worldwide. A few years ago, senior leaders in the company’s West headquarters in Hoofddorp, Netherlands, and its East headquarters in Beijing started thinking of ways to make internal communication just as innovative as what the company does externally.

So, Spencer says, Irdeto looked to other innovators, such as Google and Microsoft, and found that “what they did is they broke down a lot of the physical barriers.” And so the deskless office was born.

That setup has been in place in Irdeto’s two headquarters for some time, but the Ottawa office didn’t move until recently, in part because of a commitment to its old space, but also because the new space needed a lot of work.

“They had to completely retrofit it to our needs,” she says.

Managers at the Ottawa office also took their time, in order to ease employees into the change. “For a lot of people it’s a foreign concept,” says Spencer.

Managers brought employees to the new office site for visits fairly frequently to give them a chance to see construction as it was happening, she says. Cleaning up the old office took place in shifts so that people could let go of their stuff. Irdeto even gave employees the chance to vote on what kinds of chairs they’d have in the new office.

“By the time the move actually came around, I think we had maybe nine boxes of stuff that we labeled. Most people had their backpack and their laptop, and that was it,” Spencer says.

A welcoming setting

More often than not, the main way people communicate within the new office is simply by walking up to a co-worker and starting a conversation.

“It’s much more immediate,” Spencer says. “Instead of sending an email, you can just walk over and ask them.”

Employees looking for peace and quiet always have the focus rooms for solace, but the new office is actually a much calmer place to work, she says. Cubicles give employees a “false sense of security” when it comes to loudness, Spencer says. In the new arrangement, folks are more aware of the noise they make.

Often, employees, especially engineers, need to collaborate on projects. The table setup and having so many meeting rooms makes that easy, she says.

The atmosphere itself is simply more welcoming. “An intern could be sitting next to our SVP,” Spencer says. “We’re less siloed. We’re talking more about what people are doing.”

Employees get even closer at an employee gathering every two months with wine, beer, and snacks.

“It’s just a really nice office setting,” Spencer says. “When we were in our old office space, I worked from home a lot of the time, and now I don’t want to work from home. It’s nicer here than my home office. I actually want to come in to the office.”

Spencer says the setup is too new for employee surveys to show just how people feel about it, but anecdotally, she says it’s done wonders. “A lot of people were initially apprehensive about coming here,” she says. “They thought that they would hate it, but those same naysayers are now the biggest advocates of it.”

Worldwide connections

For communicating with folks in the 19 other Irdeto offices, each employee has a softphone—that’s a software program that works like a phone—on his or her laptop and a headset. To reach a fellow employee in Dubai or South Africa, all it takes it punching in that person’s six-digit extension, says Spencer.

Employees also use a Microsoft instant-messaging system to share their desktops, brainstorm, and conduct video chats. “It really helps kind of shrink the global barriers of working at such a big organization,” says Spencer.

She says the company also has a SharePoint platform employees use for document collaboration and other projects.

Communicators, how would such a setup work in your office? Please respond in the comments section.

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