Club or Office? How the open office contributes to sexual harassment confusion.

Is your workplace more like a bar than a boardroom? 

Since environmental clues inform our behavior, how are popular open offices contributing to the sexual harassment culture clash? A culture clash exists because working in the same open office are employees of different generations, heritage, past experiences and expectations. All of these in combination create a recipe for sexual harassment confusion if not disaster.

A Gallup News article in June reported, “about 70% of U.S. offices have an open office floor plan.” The accusations of sexual harassment in the workplace will skyrocket in 2018 unless steps are taken right now to address the relaxed atmosphere and how it affects behavior.

Why the open office is such a concern:

The lines of what is appropriate behavior are blurred in relaxed office environments. The potential bad behavior signals from my  blog on what employees are doing inadvertently to create a toxic workforce occur more readily in an open office. The environment makes employees feel relaxed and casual. Flirtatious twisting, close personal space, leaning into someone, or moves to accentuate sexual body parts are generally accepted (and even expected) in a club atmosphere. It is difficult to remember to be business professional when there is beer on tap, a pool table and a lounge atmosphere.

People move differently.  It is easier to create potentially “sexy” movements in more casual clothes. The flexibility of jeans, leggings, and spandex infused fabrics allow you to spread your legs more easily, lean over, sit “balled up” on the comfy couch in the lounge, etc. Postures which don’t readily occur in a business suit.

People speak differently. Casual conversation is different than business conversation. Subject matter, off color jokes or swearing which are usually taboo creep into the relaxed atmosphere–especially when the open office was created to enhance creativity, camaraderie and community.

Relationships are more readily assumed. In a traditional office, I may not feel like we are friends or even close colleagues. The “homey” or “club-like” open office creates a feeling of familiarity which may or may not be true. Employees may like each other fine as colleagues, but don’t consider themselves friends. People’s perceptions may be off as to how close they really are to their coworkers. The hug, arm squeeze or TMI story about your weekend are great for your friends but cross the line with your coworkers.

Employees will be less likely to speak up about feeling uncomfortable. A company spends millions on their new, open office with the barista and knock out gaming system. The community and creativity are championed by management. This is the flagship office for the rest of the company, etc. Will an employee speak up about feeling sexually harassed or will he or she feel more like it’s “just the way things are now?” Will they look for a new job rather than be seen as a dissenter?

What can businesses do if they have an open office?

Rather than simply point out the problem like Inc.’s article, How Open Plan Offices Enable Sexual Harassment, take steps to deal with this. So, before the walls go back up, create a comprehensive plan. It will probably be several meetings with differing focus to get the job done!

  1. Review the harassment policy. Obvious? Don’t just attach it to an e-mail! Review it as a team and open a conversation. The discussion must be about the policy within this environment. If it is only legalese or HR lingo, translate it and see if it needs to be altered for the conditions in the workplace.
  2. Make sure there is a procedure for reporting. It isn’t enough to have a policy for what is and what isn’t harassment. Is the process for reporting clear and do employees feel like they are safe to report without repercussions? Take an anonymous survey of the workforce to share whether they think the policy is fair and enforceable. Make sure to ask whether they think they could report someone.
  3. Discuss how nonverbal signals are different in the open office environment. How does someone let you know they want to be alone? If there aren’t spaces set up for solo work this can be an issue. Is it headphones? Are there a certain set of chairs deemed “leave me alone” chairs? Or is there another clue to signal the need for privacy? What volume level for talking is too loud? How should someone ask if they can join you at a table? (Yes, ask! Even if it is an open work space.) What personal space range is acceptable and what is not? Are touches to the hand, shoulder, etc. seen as inappropriate? The slap on the back for a joke told or project well done, may seem okay in this environment, but is it?
  4. Encourage speaking up in the moment. Make it known that anyone has the right to call out behavior that they find out of line WHEN IT HAPPENS. Remember most of the time it is innocuous and easily prevented. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware that would make you uncomfortable.” End of story. Silence and the build up of tension and resentment is problematic. Never assume someone knows what they are doing. Much of our behavior is subconscious and as we established, appropriateness lines are blurred in open offices.
  5. Use an outside facilitator (especially if your staff survey reveals less trust between management and employees than you thought). Bring in a consultant who is trained to lead discussions on sexual harassment. Discussion will be more open and productive.
  6. Have your office culture assessed. What nonverbal behaviors are red flags for potential problems? How can they be addressed as a preventative measure?

Moving Image Consulting needs to be included in your company strategy for sexual harassment training. As experts in nonverbal behavior, their consultants will assess your company and provide training in an effective, comfortable and caring way.