Offices vs. Open Space

Deciding whether to tear down the walls or build them up isn't always an open-and-shut decision.

By Robert J. Grossman Sep 1, 2002
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HR Magazine, November 2002

Experts agree that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for designing the ideal workplace. However, they fall into two deeply divided camps when it comes to a fundamental aspect of apportioning space: One group proselytizes for a return to private offices, the other promotes completely open offices.

Interestingly, these groups are united in their disdain for what some might consider a compromise position—cubicles, the office environment most commonly used by employers. Currently, an estimated 70 percent of workers spend their time in cubicles.

“They provide pseudo-privacy at best, and are terrible for spontaneous communication,” says Franklin Becker, director of the International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University.

“Cubicles are acoustic sieves that intrude on your thoughts and conversations,” agrees Michael Brill, president of BOSTI Associates, a workplace planning and design consultant in Buffalo, N.Y., and founder of the School of Architecture at the University of Buffalo.

But that’s where the agreement ends for these two experts.

Becker believes cubicle walls should come down. “Usually, you can’t see the person in the cube next to you unless you stand up,” he says.

Currently, 10 percent of offices are completely barrier-free, with no partitions separating workstations, estimate experts. In these environments, everyone—including the bosses—sits in the open on rollable chairs arranged in clusters or rows in bullpens.

In some workplaces, the private office still reigns as the primary means of allocating space—especially for those higher in the hierarchy. Overall, however, offices are becoming less common as companies squeeze funds from their facilities budgets. But Brill believes that private offices—even small ones—pay dividends for all workers by creating a more productive work environment.

HR professionals and facilities administrators caught between these two diverging opinions can easily become confused about whether one setup is generally better suited than another to their workplace. Ultimately, you’ll need to take a close look at your organization’s needs, processes and culture and decide for yourself.

Privacy vs. Collaboration

Brill studied the impact of the work environment on work satisfaction and performance for more than two decades. Working from a database of 13,000 people in 40 organizations, he’s identified the 10 most important predictors of job performance. The top two are:

  1. The ability to do distraction-free work for teams and individuals.
  2. The ability to have easy, frequent, informal interactions.

On average, when these factors were addressed at the 40 organizations studied, individual performance jumped 4 percent to 5 percent, team performance 23 percent. Job satisfaction rose 23 percent.

For Brill, the equation is simple: Workers spend the majority of their time in private or near-private activity. As a result, he advocates giving each person a private office, no matter how small.

In addition, most meetings—unscheduled, usually involving two or three people—occur at the workstation. Private spaces encourage impromptu, confidential conversations—which are the “backbone” of an organization, according to Brill.

“We’ve been experimenting with acoustically private offices that are 50-60 square feet with sliding glass doors—substantially smaller than the traditional private office. These new ‘cocktail’ offices are interspersed with or surround an open team area just outside the individual doors. The design permits people to do distraction-free work by keeping the door shut. If they choose, they can keep the door open, or step right outside to the collaborative space.”

Collaboration Trumps Privacy

Though privacy is important, Becker believes that promoting collaboration is at the core of good office design. Becker’s studies reveal that workers spend most of their time with their teams and go to private places only as needed.

As a result, he recommends a series of small-scale four- to eight-person “war rooms” or team offices. They can be in a room fully enclosed or clustered in a larger space. “There are times when someone needs total privacy, but no one works eight hours a day in the total concentration mode. You work in spurts; so you need to have the chance to get privacy when you need it.”

He cites a University of Michigan study in which two teams of software developers at Ford Motors were separated. One team was given private offices, the other assigned to war rooms. The group in the war rooms was twice as productive.

He also cites research showing that private offices can kill inter-group collaboration. “In a survey of 2,000 employees, we found that the likelihood that you’ll have contact outside your group drops dramatically when you have a private office,” he says.

Reading Between the Lines

In an attempt to decide if public or private spaces are best suited to their particular business and workforce, some employers have adopted an intuitively logical approach: They ask workers what they prefer.

However, if you take this tack you may need to take the responses you receive with a grain of salt. The office is a complex organism, with many interrelated forces—cultural, physical and psychological. To understand what’s really happening, you sometimes have to read between the lines.

Workers’ near-universal call for more privacy is an example. In surveys, workers’ No. 1 complaint is lack of privacy; the top request is for a private office, no matter how small.

Grousing about privacy, however, often is a smoke screen. Such complaints sometimes involve nothing more than status. “We’re working in an environment where vice presidents have been moved out of their private offices,” Becker says. “They feel they’ve been devalued. But it’s easier for them to complain about the noise than to admit to their real sentiments.”

Still, whatever their reasons, aren’t happy workers more productive? Not necessarily, says Becker. Sometimes an environment that’s not the most personally comfortable does a better job of enhancing group productivity.

“Creative tension can be healthy,” Becker says. “People who are asked about privacy usually respond from a personal perspective. Even if a private office would make them more productive, it’s not always the best option. When people discover that a hindrance of their personal productivity may help the team move along, they tend to accept the open office.”

Brill counters that office design must satisfy both the needs of the organization and the individual. “You have to accommodate both—they’re not tradeoffs,” says Brill. “We have watched the physical environment go from private to open offices. But it doesn’t increase interaction and doesn’t make for an open organization. When you do a serious investigation, you discover … it’s really a myth.”

He bristles at the suggestion that private office designs promote individual status over team performance. “The idea that status comes from the physical trappings of isolation, size and splendor is a kind of lunatic vision of what’s important to a business. People get status from a whole series of channels. The big ones are good colleagues, challenging work and intelligent management.”

Down the Road

When the dust settles, will private offices re-capture the turf they have ceded to cubicles in the past 25 years? Or will the partitions that divide cubicles be cast aside, opening offices even more dramatically?

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that HR, as monitor of culture and measurer of satisfaction, productivity, health and safety, needs to be involved.

“HR should be thinking broadly about the physical environment and how it impacts employee satisfaction and productivity,” concludes Lisa Bender, vice president and director of HR at the MITRE Corp., Bedford, Mass. “Space is a people issue. When decisions are made, we need to be in the middle, helping employees say what they need to do their job. We need to be advocates for having an inclusive, participative process.”

Editor’s note: Michael Brill passed away shortly before this issue went to press.

Robert J. Grossman, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.


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