Our Love/Hate Relationship with Open Offices
The dreaded open office. It’s the most common workplace design of late and also the most loathed. A recent survey of 4,000 people by YouGuv showed 16% believe their “overall quality of health has declined” in open offices while 13% said they’ve considered leaving their job because they hate an open office layout.
For all that loathing, open office plans aren’t going anywhere.
Open office design isn’t the invention of Google or other tech startups touting their insert-buzzword-here work style. Secretarial pools, like the ones from Mad Men, are the original open office. Whether you’ve sat in a similar space or were a religious viewer of the show, you’ll notice the space is noisy and lacks any semblance of privacy.
Even with their disruptive atmosphere, business executives love the open office. Why? Well, why does anyone with an eye on the bottom line love something? Cost. Open office plans are less expensive and require less space than a cubicle- or private-office model. Researcher Erik Rood revealed some of the largest S&P 500 companies save hundreds of millions of dollars yearly by shrinking workspaces.
But cost is rarely the main reason businesses give for embracing open office plans. Instead, they’ll espouse words like collaboration, connectivity, and relationship-building. Research refutes those claims, too. A 2018 Harvard study showed open offices actually reduce collaboration. Facetime between co-workers, the study revealed, decreased around 70% while email use increased up to 50%.
It is possible to create an open office that reaps financial and social benefits. Consider these options to improve existing open plans or when designing a new one:
- Adopt library rules: Encourage employees to keep their voices down. If a discussion is necessary, head to a meeting room. Need to make a phone call? Use one of the soundproof phone booths many companies are using.
- Create parity: Open offices aren’t just for the lower echelons. Morph those banks of exterior-wall rooms from executive offices to meeting spaces. Seating C-suite leadership with the ranks can improve collaboration and provide insights into ways to boost productivity and reduce costs.
- Easy access to privacy: Ensure access to meeting rooms and phone booths is readily available and simple to reserve. And respect a co-worker’s solitude. If their attention is needed, use email or IM.
- Allow personalization: Give employees assigned permanent workspaces leeway to create unique, personalized settings. Pictures, plants, a fishbowl go a long way in reducing the stress of open environments.
- Be flexible: Face-to-face desks not working? Meeting rooms constantly unavailable? Keep options open to change layouts and how space is allocated. Observe how employees use the workplace and listen to their concerns. Then, make changes to improve productivity and morale.
And if push comes to shove, be prepared to go back to traditional designs. Open office layouts aren’t for every company. The perceived collaborative benefits may not outweigh lower employee morale and lost productivity. In the end, do what’s best for business and for those who’ll make or break any success: your employees.