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Beyond the Open Office

Love it or hate it, the open office movement has sparked an important conversation about the role physical space plays in business outcomes.


There’s a certain logic behind the move many companies have made toward open offices over the past decade. It’s a trend that represents a convergence of other trends: the shift toward more-collaborative work environments, an increased dem​and for transparency and continuing cost pressures that challenge employers to do more with less. The infusion of the multi-tasking Millennial generation into the workforce—and the hip spaces many inhabit in technology companies—has played a role as well.

Indeed, the tech world has led the way in implementing large open workspaces in which there are few or no walls, let alone private offices. Google, Yahoo and eBay have all adopted this model, and Facebook recently enlisted the help of world-famous architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open office space in the world—a single room that stretches 10 acres to house several thousand engineers. Many employers all over the world have embraced open office plans, driven by cost concerns and a desire for flexible designs that can accommodate a workforce that could expand or contract suddenly.

But as the number of “open” companies has increased, so too have the questions over whether the environment is all it’s cracked up to be. A number of recent articles in the popular and business press, as well as studies in organizational psychology, suggest that all that togetherness comes at a cost, including distractions, a loss of privacy and the potential for the lightning-fast spread of germs.

​Yet the promise of open office plans is not just a bill of goods that’s been sold to companies by enthusiastic architects. Research indicates that the designs can encourage casual conversations that lead to innovation and closer-knit teams while reducing the amount of time people need to spend in formal meetings.

As businesses look for the right solution, perhaps it’s time for them to think beyond a binary “open” or “closed” model to something in between that is tailored to their particular needs. Open designs may work better when they incorporate a handful of offices with doors for select executives and departments, for example, while more-traditional office plans can be made more collaborative if they include pockets of communal space.

“The emerging trend is the hybrid approach, which includes about a 15 to 30 percent closed plan with a variety of other work areas to supplement just sitting at a desk,” says Tamar Moy, senior workplace strategist with New York City-based design and architectural company Perkins Eastman.

These new mixed designs often also include rooms for making phone calls, conference rooms of various sizes and wellness rooms so employees can take a few minutes to refresh in the middle of the workday. “I think people are realizing that sticking people in rows of desks even in an open plan is not the best way to generate optimum performance,” Moy says. “It’s the poorly designed open office that can really hinder productivity.” 

The Evolving Office

​While it has become fashionable to trash the open office design and its kin, such as “cube farms” that so many of us know (if not love), these designs actually do represent an attempt to create environments that foster productivity and a sense of camaraderie. That was not necessarily the case with the office plans of yesteryear.

“Historically, workplaces had been typically designed by architects who may not have had the best insight into what the business needed to operate,” says Kenneth Raisbeck, vice president of portfolio performance for Johnson Controls Global Workplace Solutions in London, which provides facilities management services for some of the world’s largest companies.

Nowadays, architects and office planners are working to better understand how a physical space can be combined with modern management philosophies—and new technology—to create environments that lead to healthier and more-productive employees, regardless of their age, personality type or title.

​As an October 2014 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article pointed out, for example, the open office space in itself is not inherently good or bad—and, contrary to popular belief, introverts and extroverts can both thrive in open environments that are properly designed. The key is in making the right accommodations to balance people’s desire for privacy against the competing wish for collaboration.

“Our studies show that the most successful work environments provide a range of spaces—an ecosystem—that allow people to choose where and how they get their jobs done,” the HBR authors write. That could mean allowing employees to use empty offices when their inhabitants are traveling or creating protocols that devote certain time periods, or physical places, to either silent work or team collaboration. Even small things like having the right telecom equipment in place in conference rooms can help ensure that teams work more productively.

But if HR professionals and company leaders aren’t thoughtful about how to create an environment in which everyone feels comfortable and engaged, they can’t expect an architectural plan to do the work for them. “When it comes to things like encouraging collaboration or serendipitous encounters, there is almost an ideological belief, without a lot of empirical evidence, as to what these open offices can do,” says Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014).

Open for Business

Who: Etailz Inc., an e-commerce company based in Spokane, Wash.

When: The company went with a completely open office model when it was founded in 2008.

Why: “We want everyone to feel like they’re on an equal playing field so there’s not this hierarchy,” says Andrea LaPlant, the company’s human resources manager. “It also encourages collaboration because people will be talking and interacting throughout the day. You don’t have to wait for people to respond to an e-mail. You can just walk over to their desk.”

Complaints and challenges: LaPlant says the open office layout has never been a source of complaints. “If anything, it’s become a selling point for potential new hires because they’ll come in and say, ‘Wow, this looks awesome. I’ve never worked in an office like this, but it looks fun.’ ” As an HR professional, however, LaPlant must exercise an abundance of caution in an open office environment. “We regularly deal with Social Security numbers and payroll information that can be up on your desktop screen, and people who sit by me who are not in HR might be able to see that,” she says.

The Role of Big Data

​If careful architectural and office planning is the first step toward designing office spaces that meet the needs of 21st century businesses, data-driven technological insight may represent the next phase of that evolution. Companies will likely start looking to big data to determine the best office designs for productivity, says Raisbeck, whose employer has studied offices from around the world.

“There has been a real growth in quality data, and companies are using that data to really understand how a business uses its assets,” he says. “It is helping us to understand how people work, so we can be proactive in how we help these companies design a workspace.”

For example, an interesting data point from Raisbeck’s work is how little time workers actually spend at their desks. “If you take a global view of the nearly 300,000 workstations we’ve measured around the world in 41 countries, the average utilization of those workstations is only 49 percent,” he says. “And if you look at just meeting rooms, it’s only 32 percent.”

While that doesn’t necessarily mean workers are slacking off or that a company should have someone at every desk or in every conference room all the time, it does point to significant underutilization. “Those numbers show you that the supply and demand matrix within many offices is not really working,” Raisbeck says.

The question comes back to how to create an environment that is conducive to your employees doing their best work. “We believe the workplace is a key business tool, with a clear link to productivity. If you could link the amount you spend on your office space to your business outcome, you might be inclined to spend more if you could boost that outcome,” Raisbeck says.

Open for Business

Who: Curse Inc., a videogame technology company based in Huntsville, Ala.

When: The company changed to its current open office design in 2014.

Why: “We were running out of space for our expanding team, and going to an open office offered greater possibilities for fitting everyone into the space we have to work with,” says Crystal Woodard, office/HR manager. The company used to have cubicles that had 6-foot walls and that were very closed. “Now employees have more of a standard desk, and the cube [walls] are down to 4 feet, at most, but they are no longer enclosed,” Woodard says.

Complaints and challenges: Management was initially concerned that a switch from traditional cubicles to an open office layout could lead to more distracted employees and a loss of productivity. But outside of a few minor noise complaints, that hasn’t been an issue, Woodard says.

Making It Work

​The reality for many companies is that the choice to move to an open office is driven more by financial necessity than by softer targets such as a desire for increased collaboration. That means HR must work to ensure that the design selected by the company meets the needs of its employees as well as the business.

​The reality for many companies is that the choice to move to an open office is driven more by financial necessity than by softer targets, such as a desire for increased collaboration.

The first step is to regularly poll employees about how to improve the workplace environment.

“If you really want to know what kind of office will work best for you, ask your people—and that’s where HR can play a key role,” Moy says. “Typically, we will look to HR for guidance as to who should be involved in the data collection before making any major workplace changes.” She recommends involving 100 percent of the organization by conducting Web-based surveys as well as assembling focus groups with rank-and-file staff who come from different levels of the organization and who have varying personality types.

​“The important thing to keep in mind is that even if you can’t have a workplace that has been ‘gussied up’ in the way a lot of the Silicon Valley offices are, you can still find ways to offer the largest amount of choice to workers in the setup of their offices,” Saval says. Whether that involves shifting around desks to let in more natural light or adding comfy chairs to a shared space, little things can mean a lot.

It should be an ongoing process. After implementing some of the easier changes, “have HR go back to the workers six months later and make changes to what’s not working well,” Moy says. “That’s how you can learn what really works for your organization.”

Of course, there are certain areas of a business that aren’t natural candidates for an open office approach, including any department that regularly handles sensitive legal or financial information. The design would be particularly challenging for HR professionals who need to have confidential conversations. And while most open office designs have conference rooms that offer privacy, just walking into one of those rooms with an employee may reveal more than you want others to know.

Alternate Models

​Whether the motivation is more collaboration, the need for flexibility or simply cost control, companies are implementing a variety of models to meet their needs with limited space, including the following:

Office sharing across industries. Some companies are experimenting with office sharing among individuals from noncompetitive industries. In addition to allowing companies to share some costs, the arrangement provides an opportunity for both executives and rank-and-file workers to learn how companies in other industries operate.

Going virtual. As the world becomes increasingly connected, some companies are asking whether an office—or at least one filled with desks and workstations—is necessary at all.

​San Francisco-based Web development company Automattic Inc. operates as a virtual company, with the vast majority of its roughly 300 employees worldwide working from home, although the company has lounge space in the SoMa (South of Market) section of San Francisco.

“Each person has found the balance of what works for them—whether that’s working from our lounge in SoMa, a coffee shop or their home office,” says Lori McLeese, HR lead at Automattic. “We don’t dictate where people do the work; we provide the support for them to create the most optimal environment for them to be successful.”

That includes HR. “My HR team probably uses voice and video tools more often than other roles at Automattic,” McLeese says. “We also attend many of the team meet-ups at our SoMa location so that we can have in-person discussions and build solid relationships.”

Co-work options. Largely virtual companies can incorporate some of the collaborative benefits of onsite work by offering some employees the opportunity to work in the same physical space. For example, Automattic provides a monthly subsidy to team members who “co-work” in this way as an incentive to collaboration.

Yet, for all the benefits of virtual offices, including cost savings on furniture, rent and utilities, companies such as Automattic are likely to be the exception rather than the rule for the foreseeable future.

“We don’t think that the physical office is going to go away any time soon,” says Rachele Williams, senior project manager with Houston-based APQC, a member-based nonprofit that specializes in business benchmarking, best practices and knowledge management research. “There is the ‘trust’ issue in some cases, as some managers want to be able to physically monitor employees’ activities. There are also perceived benefits of increased collaboration, productivity and teamwork for those that have the ability to be together face to face.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the open office movement is that it has led more business leaders to consider how the physical space in which people work is linked to their productivity and engagement. While HR professionals may not always control architectural plans, they can lead change by listening to employees who offer a description of the environment that works best for them—and then working to help create it.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the open office movement is that it has led more business leaders to consider how the physical space in which people work is linked to their productivity and engagement. 

“The office is really an enabler to work—and when you think about work, you think about people and process and technology as well as real estate,” Raisbeck says. “A physical workplace should never hold back a business. It should always be an enabler and never a barrier.”

David Ward is a freelance journalist based in Southern California.