Tear Down That Wall and You May Annoy Your Employees

By Barbara Ann Clay June 14, 2018
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​You're at your desk, facing a deadline to write an important report, when it starts again: the incessant, rhythmic, insanity-provoking thumping of your colleague's fingers on the desk next to yours.

Whether it's a co-worker's stinky perfume, the gossip king on his daily rounds or a noisy printer, distractions in an open-plan office make it tough for some people to work. A phone call with a client can be driven off the rails by background noises. Colleagues' conversations can impede on employees' concentration when there's no door to shut out the noise.

Advocates of open office spaces say the lack of walls promotes creativity and communication.

"Tearing down … physical walls that can be barriers to the workforce open[s] up dialogue, collaboration and communication," said Grant Pruitt, president and managing director of Whitebox Real Estate in Dallas. "This promotes a happier, more productive work environment."

We're All in This Together—Like It or Not

Open floor plans—which usually involve closely positioned desks with low partitions between them—are increasingly popular with managers and budget hawks, who see them as a way to cut costs by putting more employees in less space. Fifty-three percent of companies said they were adopting open-plan seating to save money, according to a recent report by CBRE, a Los Angeles-based real estate services company.

In fact, there's no shortage of studies on the effects of open-plan seating on businesses and their workers:

--A 2005 study by two psychologists found that people have varying responses to open workspaces. Some can filter out noise and distractions fairly easily and stay focused. But others had more trouble dealing with interruptions and were less productive and less satisfied than when they were in more traditional office spaces.

Why does it matter? Workers who don't adjust well to a new workspace may not only become unproductive, they may even just not show up for work.

--In 2011, a study by the National Institutes of Health found that workers in open-plan seating had 62 percent more sickness-related absences than those who worked in their own offices, suggesting that germs may have spread more quickly in areas with no walls to block their spread, or that unhappy employees may choose to stay home rather than work in an open floor plan.

--A 2016 Cornell University study suggested that employers need to consider how open-plan arrangements affect productivity and job satisfaction.

Employees at all levels should be trained on how to behave in an open-plan space, the Cornell study said. That includes understanding how their behavior could be disruptive or offensive to others.

Helping employees adjust starts with managing their expectations. First, communicate what the changes will be and why they're happening. This can help workers thrive in a new workplace environment.

--And according to a Journal of Environmental Psychology study, some employees feel a loss of control in open spaces. The study suggested that these workers may feel more satisfied and productive if they have access to attractive common spaces, such as lounges, break rooms, coffee bars and conference rooms.

Musical Chairs

Some employers institute unassigned seating in their open-plan workspaces: An employee chooses any available seat when he or she arrives each morning for work, so that early birds get the best places. It discourages workers from personalizing their spaces; there's no taping up pictures of one's pets, for instance, because that employee may be in a different seat the next day. In these unassigned seating arrangements, companies typically provide workers with lockers to store personal belongings.

The CBRE report showed that three quarters of companies surveyed have assigned seats for all of their employees.

That will change soon. Over the next three years, 38 percent of companies expect to move to unassigned seating for some of their staff and 14 percent plan to adopt unassigned seating for everyone, the report found. But unassigned seating can make employees feel they are not important to a company. Janine Walter, SHRM-SCP, is chief talent officer at EPIC, a San Francisco-based insurance brokerage. "I am not a fan of unassigned seating," she said. "Employees want to feel as though they 'belong' to a company, that they matter. A workstation with their name on it is a visible and physical symbol of their place within [the] organization."

The type of work that employees perform also affects workspace configuration. Factory floors and production lines do not lend themselves to open-plan seating. Teal Gaylord is vice president of human resources at The RiteScreen Company, a building materials firm based in Elizabethville, Pa. "I have spent the last 20 years in manufacturing, where [an open-plan] concept would be almost impossible to implement," she said. "Employees normally have assigned work cells [placed] where they are critically needed."

Barbara Ann Clay is a freelance writer based in Greenport, N.Y.

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