There has been a backlash against the open office plan lately. Noise, loss of privacy, and unhealthy exposure to germs are some of the hot issues that are cited by unhappy occupants. A recent article in the Washington Post declared that Google has it all wrong and the open office is destroying the workplace (though last I checked, Google seemed to be doing just fine).
So, what is really behind the backlash? Is it poor planning or bad design? Is the open concept an excuse to underfund workplace build outs? Do open plans cause an unhealthy environment?
Does It Really Work?
Or is it that the concept is fundamentally flawed?
Possibly all the above, or, none of the above. The best research available is being generated by the Center for the Built Environment’s workplace survey. Researchers are able to compare overall satisfaction with various types of environments: open offices, cubicles and private offices.
Private spaces seem to give more satisfaction than open offices. Unfortunately, the data does not normalize the ratio of occupants to square foot to give us a sense if those complaining of open offices do so because they really do not have enough space. We also don’t know anything about the design quality of the spaces studied. The data lumps all open and closed offices together, which masks the true impact of a well-executed and planned open office, and for that matter, private offices.
If you follow my posts, you know that I am a big believer in the open concept and have spoken about its benefits before. So much so, that we remodeled our corporate headquarters around the open plan concept. After being in the space for more than a year, we can confidently share that the concept works for us and has indeed helped positively influence a culture of collaboration and transparency in our firm (and improved its sustainability rating). I don’t think anyone would want to go back to our old office, even the few that initially didn’t like some aspects of the open design.
Many of their criticisms mirror the complaints of those in other open offices, though their opinions are softening as they learn to work in new ways.
So, let’s break down some of the myths to come away with a better understanding about the open office plan concept so that we don’t let the critics derail a powerful business engine.
Myth #1: I have no privacy!
It’s true that if you remove walls, densify employees, and then tether tools to their desks they will feel a loss of privacy.
In our office space, we have the same square footage per employee as a traditional office. Instead of allocating it per employee via privately defined cubes or offices, we allocated more space to a variety of workspaces that were intentionally unassigned.
Everyone at Paladino has the opportunity to find an environment that works for him or her depending on the task. Closed/open, collaborative/heads down, private/open, dark/light, cold/warm, quiet/loud – you want it, we have it.
So, teams are not required to sit next to each other to do a similar task; we have teaming rooms for that. Managers don’t need to see all their employees in a row to gain access to them; we have technology such as instant messaging that can find them quicker than that. You need not be assigned to sit next to a coworker in perpetuity. Our flexible furniture, docking stations, and wheeled filing cabinets allow you to move more easily than ever before.
Teaming rooms are open, yet are positioned far enough from desks to invite collaboration and avoid distracting other employees.
Many studies attribute the loss of privacy to the loss of control over an employee’s space (after all, you can do pretty much anything you want behind a closed door). At Paladino, we gain control and vote with our feet by moving through the space. If you’re not happy with your immediate workspace, you simply move to find one that suits you. Mobility = Control.
When we first moved into the new open space, everyone continued to work at their desk and more than likely experienced this loss of privacy. Our desks were 100% utilized and our shared spaces were not, so privacy was non-existent.
However, as employees learn about their workplace options and get comfortable with undocking their laptops and moving about, this complaint is voiced less and less frequently. Privacy can be achieved and respected by others simply by selecting one of the unassigned private spaces within the office. It’s fair to note that visual privacy is an area that where could have done better and are trying to improve. However, I do think that this is attainable within our current setup.
Privacy can be achieved when there is ample space provided to find it and social norms that respect it.
Myth #2: It’s too noisy at my desk to work!
White noise machines don’t seem to work, noise canceling headphones only allow you to hear others more clearly, and everyone knows when someone is making coffee as the grinder sounds like a 747 taking off.
If you follow the principles of the open plan concept, you are free to move about the cabin. Armed with a laptop, smartphone, and Wi-Fi, there is nothing that says you need to stay put at your desk the whole day and live with the noise and distractions of whatever is happening around you.
The private phone booth is located in quiet area of the office and comes equipped with IT for conference calls with client, or, to have a conversation with your child’s school principal.
On a recent trip through our office, I found more people away from their desks than in them. Those at their desks were doing heads down intense work that required isolation from distractions. Others, likely to distract those at their desks, moved elsewhere in the space, meeting over coffee in the kitchen, working on whiteboards in the halls, in “the lab” on a video conference call, or holding a private call in our phone booth, all of which are located away from desks.
And of course, there are unassigned work areas that are more or less acoustically private. Open office space does not mean that acoustic privacy is not needed; I would argue that it’s just not needed all the time. Our CEO has a private office, but Tom can often be seen sitting in the open office at an empty desk, allowing others to use his office for private meetings. This simple norm creates additional private space when all others are taken and reinforces that everyone is in it together.
When working in the Den, new office norms dictate that you are not to be disturbed.
Myth #3: It’s unhealthier!
Without walls to contain the flu and workers sitting closer together at benches, logic dictates that you have likely produced an environment where an entire bench of employees can get sick all at the same time.
While many of the realities described above help disprove this myth, there is one common sense strategy that can eliminate most, if not all, the risks associated with the spread of the flu and other illnesses. If you are sick, stay home!
So why are people coming to work when sick? Ten years ago, you had to go to the office in order to gain access to the tools needed to perform your work. Computers were heavy and immobile and logging into the office to check your email was a two hour process (remember those days?). With today’s technology, I can chat, email, share my screen, video conference, and access servers in Seattle, DC and Austin from literally anywhere in the world. My laptop and Wi-Fi hotspot puck weigh less than two pounds and fit easily in any carry-on bag.
So, when I am sick or think that I might be coming down with something contagious but I have critical deadlines that can’t be postponed, I work from home. When I do, I am actually more visible and accessible to others than if I quarantined myself in a private office. Not only is the commute shorter, I can remain productive over the short haul and I don’t run the risk of infecting others at work.
However, if there are managers who believe that they must physically see their employees to keep track of their progress, then an open office will create stress and strain in the workplace. Over time, as generations become more in tune with each other, I would expect this management norm to be as extinct as a dedicated private office.
Not all desks are utilized 100% of the time, and, that’s OK!
Myth busting tips and tricks
So, if you are a believer that the benefits of the open office far outweigh the negatives, below are the keys to success that we used in our own open office space:
- Use the same SF per occupant ratio assumptions for a private office to plan your open office. If you are looking to reduce the ratio through an open plan, you will create a scenario in which no one is happy and the company will be perceived as taking away something and giving back nothing in return. So, an open office should be about creating collaboration and not about reducing build-out costs.
- Design as many flexible, unique, and unassigned work spaces as possible that will allow your employees to find the best place to do any task. That extra space you get from removing walls needs to be given back in the form of additional work environments. Mimic coffee shops, a library reading room, phone booth, lab, a park bench, couch, or even your local pub with the new found space. When given the option of one private office for 50 hours per week vs. 10 or more different options throughout the day, most will see the gains of moving into a more collaborative, interesting, and (dare I say) private office than a closed office plan.
- Complement the open office plan with IT hardware that is highly mobile: laptops, docking stations, smartphones, and Wi-Fi are a must. No one can leave their desk if their IT equipment is tethered to it. So, if you have a number of employees that are not mobile due to their technology requirements, then the open concept is likely not right for them.
- Create a culture that recognizes the norms of a private office environment are no longer applicable and outline new ones that empower your workforce to move about the cabin (or stay out of the cabin altogether when sick). Change comes slowly over time and does not happen overnight. When you move into a new open office, communications, sharing of best practices from one employee to another, and using multiple methods to create lasting change is a must.
For many looking into incorporating an open office plan, the churn of change may feel like it’s too much to handle and why bother. On the other hand, there are 71 million Millennials that are about to change the workplace, and, if you want to compete for that talent, a well planned and executed open office may be your best tool yet.
Brad Pease is a Director, AIA, LEED® AP BD+C with Paladino Austin.