January 29, 2019
There has been a lot of ink spilled in recent years about how terrible the cavernous, noisy open workplace trend has been on human interaction and productivity.
The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Inc. and many others have written about coping mechanisms employees use such as earphones and huddling up in tiny phone rooms, and Bloomberg News declared that “Everyone Hates The Open Office Plan.”
Last year, a pair of Harvard professors published a study that found face-to-face communication plummets in open offices because people switch to more private channels such as instant messaging, texting and chat tools such as Slack.
Professors Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban used sociometric sensors with infrared, microphones and accelerometers to track interactions over several weeks before and after switching to an open office layout. The study found that employees in open offices:
Does the study portend the end of the open office trend?
Not quite. Nor should it.
We agree that large open spaces can be detrimental, especially when workstations are densely packed together and the overall office surpasses a certain size of about 8,000 or 10,000 square feet. Acoustics and activity simply get overpowering.
We think there’s a better way to incorporate the great features of open offices with a smarter and well-designed approach that creates “agile workplace” that supports all work styles.
It comes down to a deeper understanding of what your employees actually need and want, the culture of the company and the type of business they are in.
We start every project with culture surveys that uncover incredible insights about how much time people spend doing solo work, collaborative work, external meetings and remote work. We also ask how often they interact with people on other floors or other parts of the office, and whether they wish they could interact more.
The results guide our entire approach to real estate, from space planning to choosing the best part of town for their office.
Some fast-growing businesses truly need more open space so sales teams and developers can work together and create a sense of community in a cost-effective way. But even in these mostly open environments, a few small conference rooms and private phone booths are essential for the times when employees need to concentrate or make sensitive phone calls.
Other companies may need more private offices or semi-private workstations so employees can focus on high-value strategy and sensitive projects that impact revenue. When that’s the case, these companies usually still benefit from having some areas that encourage collaborative work or flexible work styles.
So when people ask us if open workplaces were the worst idea ever, our answer is simple: only when poorly planned and poorly executed.
Let’s talk about how we can create an agile environment that will elevate your workplace.