Why An Open Office Design Might Not Work For You

Autonomous Autonomous | Jul 8, 2019

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They’re noisy, distracting and stressful. And most importantly, they’re leading to lower productivity levels. That’s right, open office design might not be the answer! But, if you’re smart, you can use elements of open office design to create an awesome, productive hybrid workspace.

This article is a part of the full guideline office design series: 

With tech companies grabbing the global economy by the collar and pulling it in all-new directions, the days of 9-5’s in dreary, soul-sucking offices are thankfully becoming more and more a thing of the past. But all these changes to the types of jobs we’re doing, and the spaces we’re doing them in, come with various growing pains.

Some companies see the Googles of the world — with their wild and free campus offices complete with slides instead of stairs and game rooms instead of meeting rooms — and they think, hey let’s do that! Then there are a growing number of startups turned unicorns, with their own creative spaces, that are equally tempting to copy. Maybe if you copy their design, you can copy their growth!

The rub, though, is a somewhat general and common life lesson: what works for somebody else may not necessarily work for you, no matter how well it works for that somebody else.

The pendulum has swung too far

The increased popularity of open workspace is not a surprise. For so many years, office workers have been trapped in their stuffy little cubicles, having to stand up and peer over a wall to chat with a coworker. And with so much disdain accumulating towards that type of workspace over years and even decades, it’s understandable that once the pendulum started swinging away from that type of design, that it would swing too far the other direction to overcompensate.

It seems that’s exactly what’s happening today.

The myth: Removing physical walls and cubicles in the office will inspire more face-to-face interaction among employees, leading to greater collaboration and production.

The reality: Open spaces actually result in less face-to-face interaction and collaboration. One case study featuring two Fortune 500 companies, before and after they transitioned to an open office space, found that employees interacted 72% less often in the open layout.

Source: https://insights.dice.com/2018/07/16/open-office-totally-innefective/

So many companies have gone all-in with an open workspace without taking the time to understand why and invest in critical analysis on whether it really is the best setup for their company, and for the happiness of their employees.

As the study states:

“Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.”

If you’re looking to create that popular “startup vibe” to breathe new life into your company, then it’s important to invest time in developing a game plan that best fits all of your employees and the varying roles they take on.

Privacy is crucial to production

Let’s acknowledge one thing: the idea of the open workspace began with good intentions, inspired by startup culture wherein there is often much less hierarchy than in larger, more traditional companies. As a way to highlight this point, startups removed office doors and walls to create a visible leveling of the playing field between top executives and more junior level employees. If the CEO has no office, then the CEO must be approachable and accessible, right? They aren’t any more special than I am, right? It was a nice idea. It just doesn’t scale up very well.

A survey conducted by tech PR firm Bospar found that 76% of respondents hate working in an open office space, with 43% stating a lack of privacy as their main pet peeve.

And yet another study showed a whopping 62% increase in sick days for those working in open offices compared to those with more private working quarters. That can’t be good for production.

Even prominent companies such as Apple are not immune to this employee pushback, with several high-level talents threatening to quit the tech giant over a new open workspace design in 2017.

The point is clear: even if your particular business model would benefit from increased collaboration among employees, most human beings still need quiet time to process their thoughts in order to achieve their greatest levels of output.

As we’ve been told since we were children: too much of anything isn’t good for you.

Considering the mounting data, how do you modernize your office without falling into the open space trap? Go hybrid!

5 tips for creating the ultimate hybrid office space

1. Try a closed open space

If there is a group or multiple groups in your office that need to collaborate more often then why not let them work in a larger meeting room, with the door closed. This way, those who benefit most from an open work environment are essentially working in one, but they’re not disrupting the rest of your office while doing so.

2. Use smart office tools

Adding privacy panels is a great way to create a productive, hybrid office space that blends the positive goals of an open office but still provides some privacy for those who need it. Other important additions can include electric standing desks as well as ergonomic chairs and stools. These are tools that you can add to your office in a variety of sizes and colors to help break the space up visually while also making your office more physically engaging, leading to healthier and happier employees.

3. Map it out

Consider as many aspects of your business as possible. What technology is needed in your daily work and where is it located? Are temporary or continually changing workspaces an option? How much space are you working with and is there room to expand? Where is natural light available and how important is it to maximize? The Harvard Business Review created a continuum on these and a number of other factors to consider when looking at updating your office design.

4. Get employee feedback

This is especially important for startups and smaller companies. Talk to your team. Ask them what design will help them perform their best. What’s missing? What bugs them? Offer some ideas about hybrid workspaces, a mix of open and private, and see what they say.

Maybe certain positions agree that they wouldn’t mind working together in a group more often and wouldn’t be bothered by each other’s work habits in an open space. Others, however, may state they would be much more productive if they had a private room with a closed-door where they could really lock in and focus.

5. Test it out

If possible, dedicate a week as a trial run to a potential new office space layout. Maybe you can have the open workspace, kitchen area and game room at one end and meeting rooms, individual workspaces and a quiet room at the other end.

Let a group work in a dedicated closed open space, as mentioned above. Encourage others to choose their ideal setting within the office, based on their feedback. Finally, allow employees to work remotely from home or any location they want, if they’re able to. See what happens after one week. Not only will you learn more about what works best for your company, the employees themselves may realize they don’t work better in a group, or they don’t work better remotely.

Remember, it’s about finding the office design that works best for your business, not what worked for somebody else or what’s trending on social media. Try out your ideas, learn what works and what doesn’t, then move forward with your new office layout.

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