August 08, 2018

The open office debate: if you do it, follow these basic rules

The perils of open office plans have been hotly debated recently. They’re supposed to promote collaboration, but study after study have shown that they negatively affect employee productivity and social interaction. Here, the top tips to fix your open office environment.

Danielle Ng-See-Quan

Dani is the Managing Editor, Content Marketing at Ceridian.

Employers love open office plans. Nearly 75% of U.S. offices are open concept, while it’s reported that the U.K. has twice as many open-plan offices as the global average.

In recent years, there’s been a surge in employers pursuing open offices in the spirit of encouraging socialization, collaboration, and agility.

The open environment also bucks the tradition of high-walled cubicles. This literal “breaking down of barriers” is in line with flattening hierarchies in the modern workplace, and is meant to empower employees to work in styles they prefer (not chained to a desktop computer or phone; meeting informally and fluidly).

From a financial perspective, Bloomberg noted recently that employers favor open offices because they’re cheaper – you can put more employees in a smaller space, which is important if you work in a city with high commercial rents.

The problem is, employees don’t like open concept spaces. Bloomberg sums up the reasons why pretty succinctly:

“Management literature churns out study after study quantifying the ravages of open plans on morale, health, and productivity. Clutter, distractions, smells, and illnesses spread quickly in a room without partitions. Hot-desking – when employees forfeit personal workstations and have to park their laptops in whatever space is available – has all the appeal of a pay-per-hour motel.”

There’s been a glut of recent headlines, too, reinforcing why open offices are abhorred. The reasons are broad – everything from creating defensive behaviors to a reduced desire to interact, and strained work relationships (as the BBC reports). It seems counterproductive to pursue an open office plan when it seemingly does the exact opposite of what it was designed to do.

Most of the aforementioned research, however, points out that it’s not so much the open office, full stop, that’s the problem – it’s the way it’s designed.

How can we fix it? As per the Financial Times, “It seems only fair that if a company is determined to inflict this woe on its workers, it should observe some basic rules to help people survive open-plan life.” Collected here, the top ways to fix your open office plan:

Encourage a personal touch

As per the Economist, while cubicles aren’t great, they still give employees an opportunity to bring a personal touch to their workspaces – like family photos, kitschy mementos, or plants.

People need quiet spaces to work undisturbed, both for their productivity and mental well-being.

So what can employers do? While a full redesign to include offices for everyone is unrealistic and expensive, there are options that blend the ideal aspects of open concept offices with traditional walled offices.

Create boundaries and barriers

While a full office re-design may be out of the question, encourage employees to get creative with creating makeshift partitions. Using office items and furniture like filing cabinets, bookshelves, or even plants,, for example, can dampen ambient noise, create a semblance of privacy, and make it at least a little harder for people to interrupt.

Other options include letting employees design their own spaces. Furniture designers have been creating desks with modular designs that give employees more privacy by eliminating the standard desk grids.

Add diversity to the types of spaces in your office

There’s a new model gaining momentum in the next phase of office design – the “palette of places,” the New York Times reports. This model is open-plan, but also accounts for team spaces, meeting rooms, and quiet or soundproof work areas. This approach uses design to foster collaboration, and instead of a one-size-fits all plan, takes the company’s types of work and employees’ specific needs into account.

As per the NYT, “A diversity of spaces, experts say, is more productive, and the new concept is called ‘activity-based workplace design,’ tailoring spaces for the kind of work done.”

Design your space to foster the different levels of collaboration: solo work time, one-on-one meetings, small working groups and large brainstorms. Having these structured spaces will help facilitate organic collaboration. Also consider a plan that supports your employees’ lifestyles – you may need a quiet room, a lactation room for nursing mothers, or even tech-free zones.

Try other productivity boosters

If your open office design isn’t encouraging collaboration or social interaction, try other ways to address the issue. Humanyze CEO and co-founder Ben Waber found that “simple fixes like  bigger lunch tables in the cafeteria or giving employees a coffee break at the same time can boost productivity and improve socializing at work,” PBS reports.

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