“Simply put, our approach to solving puzzles is detached and disengaging. Untying knots is engaging, immersive, and when pursued with others, transforming.” (Miller et al. 2014).

“Problems that were never seen as connected have become so interwoven that attempting to determine where one element begins and ends is now impossible.” (Miller et al. 2014).

Moving to an Open Office: It’s Not About the Open Office

Many years ago, when I was a high school soccer coach, I would train my team to play as a team rather than as 11 individual players. We worked daily so that we would be able to adapt to the fluidity of the game. We could never recreate specific situations, but we could train ourselves to think and act as one.

In sports, this type of unified group thinking makes sense. We understand the necessity of a team of players thinking and acting as one. Yet, in our workplaces, specifically in our schools, we typically operate as a collection of individuals. In particular, our leadership teams are often comprised of fragmented, isolated, and detached members, interacting and collaborating collectively once a week at best. We must change, and we must innovate, because the challenges facing Christian schools are substantial and complex.

At the 2017 Global Christian Schools Leadership Summit in Orlando, Florida, I spoke about 10 challenges to the sustainability of Christian education. The list included social, financial, global, pedagogical, and religious challenges. The needs are staggering and, frankly, threatening. We are nearly a quarter of the way through the twenty-first century and Christian schools, in particular, are struggling to respond to these threats. Why? How is it that Christian schools are struggling to adapt to the shifting landscape of modern times?

I believe one of many reasons is because Christian schools are not built to be adaptable. At the highest levels of our organizations, we are structured in a top-down, hierarchical model, much like we were 50 years ago. Most interesting, our office spaces are arranged as a reflection of our organizational charts and force our schools to operate in silos. The form of our offices determines the function of our people, and it is choking our organizations. But rather than negatively focusing on our challenge, it is time for Christian school leaders to focus on the opportunities for transformation.

Space Matters

At Monte Vista Christian School, we use space intentionally, as a lever for cultural change and as a representation of cultural values. Therefore, we are seeking to create spaces where the form of the space dictates the function of the space. In December 2016, we embarked on an ambitious project to transform our office culture. The centerpiece was the remodeling of the central office to encourage and celebrate collaboration, fluidity, adaptability, relationship, and community.

We have 14 people on our leadership team, and all of them were scattered in individual offices around our 105-acre campus. Several of the members of the leadership team had contiguous offices; however, most were detached and remote. As in most schools, the headmaster’s office was detached from the other office spaces and protected by an assistant. In every way, the form of the office structure was a representation of traditional offices.

As our team began to evaluate our organizational culture, we noticed that our leadership arrangement was not only a reflection of our school culture but, most significantly, a main contributor to our school culture. The challenges we were facing as an organization mirrored the leadership team’s challenges, which in turn mirrored the isolated spaces in which we worked.

Radical Transformation: An Innovation Cascade

Radical cultural transformation begins with a small but significant alteration. A year ago, in studying the transformation and rebirth of Yellowstone National Park, I learned about how the introduction of wolves to Yellowstone altered the entire ecological landscape of the park. It turns out that the wolves began a trophic cascade, impacting every aspect of the park’s ecosystem, even altering the behavior of the rivers.

In reflection, I wrote a blog article to synthesize my thoughts and coined the term innovation cascade. An innovation cascade is the result of a simple but substantial addition or alteration within an organization. Without force or coercion, innovation cascades through an organization, unable to be stopped or hindered, and changes the ecosystem of the organization along the way.

Further, I considered the ramifications of Jesus’ words when he said, “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17, ESV). In other words, fresh visions need fresh space. True transformation needs a new home.

Our Space Transformation

My goal is to lead an organization that is able to respond to the complex challenges of the digital, modern world. I desire for our team to be collaborative, fluid, adaptable, malleable, relational, and communal in its response. We viewed an office space that embodied these characteristics as a way to catalyze cultural transformation, and to start an innovation cascade within our organization.

The images below show the progression of change, in which we moved from traditional, individual offices to a hybrid of open space, flexible work stations, and group spaces (a conference room). We have been intentional in our design to allow for fluidity. The space is constantly transforming to meet the needs of the team. As I write this article, we are in the process of welcoming new members to our leadership team and, since the space is living and breathing, it is changing. We are also in the process of re-organizing our Student Services and administrative assistants into their own open office environments. Innovation is cascading through the organization.

Dedicated individual offices

Dedicated individual offices

The creation of an open or flexible office space does not instantaneously or magically transform the school culture. If utilized properly, however, it is a catalyst for deep change. It is a “wolf” with the potential to begin an innovation cascade within an organization. An open office is a new wineskin prepared to contain new wine. But there must be new wine.

Traditional leadership behaviors in an open office will be disastrous. Leading in an open office requires a commitment to transparency and team building. Removing physical walls is easy. Removing the invisible political, personal, relational, and divisional walls within an organization is where the real challenge lies. While altering the landscape of the office is a crucial first step in the process, deep commitment to the transformation process is required of leaders. Personally, I have had to model the vision of this new office space by removing the headmaster’s office and joining the team. My space is a small standing desk right alongside my colleagues. I am accessible, open, and part of the team, not special or set apart. I believe this speaks volumes to our organization.

Leadership Development

Space transformation demands people transformation. Why? Because new space requires new behaviors. New behaviors are only possible when people change. Therefore, changing your office’s spatial arrangement necessitates an intentional focus on leadership development.

Demolition

Demolition

At Monte Vista Christian, we have doubled down on our leadership development efforts since our move to an open office. This week our entire cabinet spent two days at an offsite retreat. The focal point of our time together was Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. As our team improves in our ability to trust each other, make conflict productive, commit, hold each other accountable, and focus on results, we will learn to live in our shared space as a highly functioning team. Ultimately, we will begin to transform our culture.

For example, at our recent offsite retreat, our team collectively agreed that our thematic goal for the next six months is the concept “we.” We focused on a quote from our founder almost 90 years ago as a theme for our work:

“Monte Vista is a school where boys and girls, regardless of whether they lived near or far, irrespective of race, creed, or position in life, whether they be children of ministers and missionaries, children from well-regulated families or children from broken homes, all, alike, could receive a good education and at the same time learn to live together, play together, work together, and worship together as one happy, wholesome family.” (Emphasis added)

“Together as one” stands out for me because it embodies the culture of leadership I desire to see at Monte Vista Christian School. Because space matters, we are leveraging our space as a representation of our desired institutional culture and as a catalyst for an innovation cascade for the transformation of our culture.

Work stations, view into conference room

Work stations, view into conference room

A Call to Be Radically Different

Do you desire to change your school culture? Do you long for a school that is prepared to tackle the complex challenges threatening Christian education? If so, perhaps you will join me on a journey of transformation. Perhaps you will take a bold step and begin an innovation cascade within your organization by introducing a wolf and providing some new wineskins. It is challenging work. It is dangerous work. But, then, so is doing nothing.

Flexible work stations

Flexible work stations

 

 

References

Miller, R., M. Casey, and M. Konchar. 2014. Change your space, change your culture. Jon Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.

Lencioni, P. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. 2002. Josey-Bass: San Francisco.

 

Action Steps:

How can you respond to this post?

  1. Conduct an “audit” of the office spaces in your school. Consider what these spaces communicate to leadership, faculty, and students about the way you work as a team. How do these spaces hinder or promote problem-solving, collaboration, teamwork, and innovation?
  2. If you are a school leader, share this blog post with your leadership team. Discuss the potential benefits of an open, flexible, and/or hybrid office concept for your school, as well as challenges to implementation.

 


 

About the Author

Mitchell Salerno

Dr. Mitchell Salerno is Headmaster of Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville, CA, president of the Christian Coalition for Educational Innovation, and a well-regarded speaker on school innovation and technology. He can be reached via email at MitchellSalerno@mvcs.org and the school website is www.mvcs.org.

 


For general questions about the ACSI blog, email blog@acsi.org. Please note: while this is an ACSI site, the opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily reflect the positions and beliefs of ACSI; rather, they are the opinions and beliefs of the individual authors.

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11 Comments

Cindy Earwood

I understand the theory. I love the look of the new office space and see how it could breed collaborative work. I have a few questions: How do you concentrate? How do you limit socializing? Where are papers and files kept? What if you need a private area for conferences and/or phone calls?

Reply
Mitch Salerno

Cindy, great questions. I love that you are asking them.

Depending on the task, individuals will tailor their work environment accordingly. If the task requires deep concentration and privacy, the individual would go to private space. We have several in the immediate area and scattered throughout campus. When designing the space, this is a real and legitimate concern. Everyone assumes “open” means completely open. This is not so. Private space dedicated for work, meetings, phone calls, etc. is necessary and required.

Your question about socializing is interesting to me. We don’t want to limit socializing. We want to encourage it! We believe teams are better when they know and trust each other. This only happens when there are real, deep, and honest relationships. I would suggest that most teams don’t socialize enough! My favorite time in the office is right after school is out. Everyone comes back to the office. There is music from our resident DJ and lots of laughter. Oh, and there is a good deal of work accomplished as well as we discuss our day, talk about plans for the next day, collaborate on projects, etc.

There are several locations throughout the office to store materials and files. Most importantly, this is a catalyst for a paperless, digital workspace. We also have several other areas on campus where permanent files (for students, for example) are stored.

If you would like to learn more, I would be delighted to talk with you. The questions you are asking are wonderful because they highlight the cultural transition (innovation cascade) that will naturally occur when space is altered. The move should not be taken lightly and, as explained in the article, go hand in hand with a fresh vision of leadership.

Best,

Mitch

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Laura Mohler

Love the idea but our building is cement block and almost 100 years old! Tearing down walls to open up office space is a monumental and costly task, maybe someday.

Reply
Mitch Salerno

Laura, is there a way to redesign without removing walls? “Open” is less about one big space and more about what the spaces you have communicate to your leadership team and your school. Start small and begin to knock down the invisible and metaphorical walls. Best, Mitch

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Greg Tonkinson

Thanks for your article. You have an outstanding school and beautiful campus.
Question – how do you respond to those who might say that you missed this trend by about 10 years? In that, many companies have already tried this and now they’re claiming it’s actually more problematic than it is helpful? Accusations of: severe lack of needed privacy, documented studies on a drecrease in productivity, the employee that can’t help but socialize way too long with you, not being able to personalize your space, noise distractions, to name a few.
Thank you.

Reply
Mitch Salerno

Greg, great questions. I particularly love the transparency of your question regarding whether we have missed the trend. That is a real indictment of our movement. If this trend literally came and went, why did most Christian schools miss it almost completely? In reality, it is not about missing trends but creating work environments that are healthy and whole. I believe this is more about a vision of leadership than office arrangement or improvement.

So, your questions regarding a need for privacy, a documented decrease in productivity, too much soliciazation, lack of personalization, and noise must be counterbalanced with the pitfalls of isolated offices . . . Isolated team members, lack of team and organizational cohesiveness, top-down hierarchical management practices, lack of accountability, lack of unity, gossip, each person fending for themselves, departmental silos, office politics, etc., to name a few.

The real challenge, then, is to reject either/or scenarios. Can we learn from the research and anecdotal experiences? I believe we can. Is it possible to create work environments that reduce the negative side effects of both extremes? Once again, I think we can. In talking with some colleagues yesterday, the indication was that while there are challenges, the environment we are creating has been a catalyst for culture transformation. We are thinking about and asking questions that would never have been asked if we had not adopted a growth mindset.

This is my challenge to you. Do an audit of your leadership culture. Is it what you want? In our case, we wanted a collaborative and collective culture. So in order to make that happen, we utilized space as a lever for change. I want to be clear. This is not about the space. It is about how we respond to the space. When you change your space (the form) you change how people behave (the function). This is the power of space.

Please don’t rush out to do exactly what we have done. Do ask honest questions without fear and lead your organization or team on a journey of reflection and growth with the goal of creating happy, healthy, and whole working environments.

As I mentioned in previous comments, I would be delighted to talk further in person or on the phone.

Best,

Mitch

Reply
Carissa Medina

Greg,
Thank you for taking the time to reflect on Dr. Salerno’s post; you raise some valid concerns that one might have regarding shared work spaces. As a new member to MVC administrative team, what I truly appreciate is that those who share this workspace do not see these concerns as challenges, but rather as opportunities. I have personally found that I can be more productive in a shared workspace, as the communication is in real time and I have access to other leaders to assist in planning and admin tasks. The intermittent socializing has become a means to building a stronger team–one where there is support, shared insight and deeper relationships, which has increased morale amongst our staff. The greatest opportunity and benefit I have seen is what the shared workspace demonstrates to our student body–that the skills of collaboration and communication that we teach in our classrooms are modeled by our leadership. For us, it’s been an effective way to reshape our thinking. Overall, I have found that working together as a team in our shared workspace has benefits that working in a silo does not afford. Again, great question!

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David Schenk

As someone that has know Mitch for a LONG time, I want to add that anyone reading this needs to realize that Mitch is truly practicing what he is preaching. He desires a collaborative environment and embraces “the team” mentality. Mitch is also speaking from experience: at his previous school he enjoyed a palatial office (at least from my current perspective) with a window overlooking the athletic facilities and he gave that up for his small stand up desk at Monte Vista.

I’d also add that administrators should take a careful look at their environment and ask themselves if their current one might just be a little too comfortable. I think that for many of us it would be a challenge to work in this open space and that might be exactly the reason why we should be in one: it would stretch us and grow us. If you want a collaborative team you need to be intentional about creating it and this is just ONE possible way of making that happen.

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John Petrey

One of the things I always appreciate about Mitch is encouraging us to have a conversation and talk about a different perspective. I have seen Christian schools around the world do some interesting and amazing things and sometimes I have copied the idea totally (with permission). Even if we don’t use the idea, the best part for our teams has been the great discussions, planning, and professional growth that happened. I’m not sure some of those discussions or growth would have happened if we had not considered the idea in the first place.

Schools are quirky, and changing anything can be hard, no matter how small a change. I don’t know that we’ll have the resources or ability to embrace a shift like this in the immediate future, but it will help spur our strategic planning in the areas of collaboration, efficiency, problem solving, and team building that we need.

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Daryn Honda

I have two questions can concerning this collaborative concept. As a classic introvert I need quiet, uninterrupted space and to be most productive. Having worked in an open space environment before entering education, I found it difficult to be at my best because of all of the activity surrounding me. How do you maintain the collaborative atmosphere while still being respectful of those who really need “privacy” to be their best? Second, how would you suggest incorporating these ideas into an elementary classroom setting, specifically a fourth grade classroom?

Reply
Mitchell Salerno

Daryn,

Great questions. Thank you for asking them.

1. Introverts need for privacy . . . I have two thoughts to answer this question.

One, the need for privacy must be mediated in the design process. When creating the open space, care should be taken to provide secondary quiet spaces for the people to retreat. This could be for quiet work or it could be phone calls. Regardless of the use, we all need some time away. Intentionally designing spaces for this purpose is crucial.

Two, and I think this is equally important, we must recognize the nature of our work. There is individual work and there is collective work. In my experience, the design of space has prioritized individual (private) work. In so doing, collaboration and the collective have been devalued. Moving to an open concept and aggregating the leadership team into one space, we have prioritized the collective and have encouraged collaboration. Note, we have not eliminated individual work. We have simply shifted priority. This is not insignificant. Shifting priority alters the flow of work and, when managed properly, increases speed, malleability, and the formation of a positive culture. In our situation, the collective culture is leading to transformational results in team dynamic, cooperation, communication, etc. It would be hard to imagine a traditional space yielding such results. Further, our team is now stepping into discussions regarding health and well-being. Our sensitivity to each other’s needs has increased tremendously because we are connected. I would encourage you to read Rex Miller’s work in this area. His recent blog post is a great starting point. https://blog.acsi.org/disengagement-in-school

I love how you immediately transfer to the 4th grade classroom. In all ways, our classrooms are open spaces. Think about it. There are no walls (except the exterior walls) and the student desks are connected. I would first encourage you think about the student who needs quiet learning spaces. Have you intentionally designed spaces for those students to retreat to…perhaps to read or to study? I have visited classrooms where intentional design has created nooks, cubbies, etc. for students to retreat. I would suggest that most classrooms are not intentionally or thoughtfully designed and, therefore, are too “open.”

Additionally, I would return to my second observation above and ask you to think about the nature of the work in your 4th grade class. Is it individual or collective? In other words, is your pedagogical style focused on individual learning or collective exploration. When I went to Christian school, we completed worksheets, drills, etc. While the classroom was open the learning was private. There are ways to utilize the space to encourage collaboration by opening the curriculum to challenge based problem solving. This is a larger discussion so I will refrain from venturing in too far. I think you get the idea.

Space matters . . . working collectively matters . . . I want to encourage you to look to possibilities within your space and utilize your space as a catalyst to create the office or classroom culture you desire. If you have further questions, you are always welcome to connect via email at MitchellSalerno@mvcs.org.

Best,

Mitch

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