Is it Time to Close the Open Workspace?

For the last 20 years, organizations have shifted the design of workspaces toward more open plan environments that support collaboration, innovation, and creativity. “Open plan” is the generic term used in architectural and interior design for any floor plan that makes use of large, open spaces and minimizes the use of small, enclosed rooms such as private offices. The tech industry has been leading this trend; Facebook famously created the world’s largest open workspace at its Menlo Park headquarters in 2015. It’s a 430,000 square-foot space with 2,800 employees, and Mark Zuckerberg has a desk right in the middle. 

But a number of articles and research are casting doubt on the effectiveness of open workspaces. They have been criticized for being distracting, noisy, and intrusive. Some employees complain about constant interruptions and a lack of privacy and report getting less work done. Mobile technology means we’re always accessible.

Gallup’s Study of the American Workplace 2017 indicates that certain office features encourage higher levels of employee engagement. Employees with:

  • a door they can shut are 1.3 times more likely to be engaged than other employees.
  • flexible work time or a personal workspace are 1.4 times more likely to be engaged.
  • privacy when they need it are 1.7 times more likely to be engaged.

A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health found employees in shared or open-plan offices reported almost twice as many days of sickness absence compared to those in private offices. One suggested explanation was that viruses and bacteria spread more easily in open offices. Another was that open offices are more stressful to work in because of the lack of privacy, and that the stress makes sickness more likely.  

Did Facebook get it wrong?

Like other elements of culture, a one-size-fits-all approach chasing the latest trends may not be appropriate. The solution may be tweaking elements of your open-office design, or moving to a hybrid-like, balanced workspace. Here are four areas to consider:

Start with the data

Metrics can provide baselines to assess changes you’ve made, or are about to make, to your workspace. Use information you already collect.

  • Do you measure success for your organization in revenue dollars, customer satisfaction, or net promoter score?
  • Are there team or individual measures of productivity?
  • Does your time-reporting or billing information indicate time spent on different tasks?
  • What is the square-footage per employee?
  • Do you have opinion surveys, exit interviews, or onboarding assessments that ask about environment?

 Look at your employees

Generational and cultural preferences can impact workspace design. Millennials, born in the 1980s and 1990s, see the same drawbacks to open layouts—noise, distractions, lack of privacy, and crowding—as older people. But they strongly believe that the opportunities to socialize, work in teams, or get help from colleagues outweigh the negatives, according to studies of office workers in Finland. Another study by furniture maker Knoll Inc. found that Baby Boomers value acoustic privacy and quality meeting spaces, while the often-neglected Gen Xers enjoy sharing engaging workspaces with Millennials but prefer quiet, like their Boomer colleagues.

Attitudes toward privacy vary culturally: In China, people don’t think about individual privacy in the same way that Westerners do. In India, it’s not uncommon for workers to seek out pockets of privacy—in unoccupied nooks on the periphery of workspaces, in storage areas, or along walls. Despite their relatively dense workspaces, both Indian and Chinese workers rated their work environments highly in terms of their ability to concentrate and work without disruption.

Open-plan workspaces seem tailor-made for extroverts, who draw energy from collaboration and like to think out loud. But for the one-third to one-half of the population that are introverts, this environment can be exhausting. Susan Cain, author of the international best seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, launched a Quiet Revolution at quietrev.com to recognize the needs of introverts, including a partnership with Steelcase, a leading manufacturer of workplace furniture to address workplace design.

Align with your mission, vision, and values

Real estate development firm Urban Villages is creating a sense of place that can provide an authentic community identity. Collaboration is critical to their work developing new communities and is embraced in the design of their Downtown Denver office.

Health care facilities are responsible for shielding patient information. Government offices today must think about issues of homeland security. Financial institutions must guard their customers against identity theft.

Study the work

Neuroscience research identifies three basic modes of attention:

  • Controlled attention or focus: Working on a task such as writing or thinking deeply, while avoiding distractions and noise.
  • Stimulus-driven attention: The ability to switch focus when something catches our attention. When we’re performing routine tasks like responding to emails, we may need or want interruptions that signal more urgent needs.
  • Rejuvenation: Break time for our brains and bodies to recharge positive energy, or discharge emotions that impair us.

As we switch among these three modes, we require a variety of workspaces that afford more or less privacy. The challenge is to find the right balance between private retreats, collaboration spaces, and social areas. This may not mean changing your existing space. Noise cancelling earphones or quiet hours can provide privacy. Flexibility to change hours, work from home, or a nearby coffee shop can meet employees’ needs.

Should you follow Google and Facebook, or wait to see what Apple’s new “spaceship” design headquarters has when it opens later this month? A better solution may be to provide employees with flexibility to adapt to what works best for them, for the team, and for your own organization.