Open office

Evaluating the Open Office

The idea of the “open office” originated in the 1950’s, when prominent architects began to associate dividing walls and confined rooms with commercial oppression. By removing the imposed divisions popular with office spaces at the time, designers were in their view, freeing office dwellers and cutting costs. Today, the “open office” seems to have lost some of it’s revolutionary appeal, as employees realize the negative effects of working in close proximity to their peers. Despite the criticisms and challenges however, when implemented correctly, the open office layout can be very advantageous to workspaces.

Open office designs have come under scrutiny in recent years as some research has shown that any collaboration benefits are offset by an increased amount of workplace distractions. A 2016 Forbes article claimed that 25-30% of employees in open-office environments were dissatisfied with the level of noise in their workplaces. Furthermore, employees complained about a lack of privacy which led to failures becoming more public, and led to sensitive information becoming more difficult to keep private. All of these changes can lead to an office environment that is less productive and more conducive to stress. The argument which proponents of the traditional office make is that the discomfort brought to employees who prefer privacy outweighs the benefits for those who perform better in a trendy, open work setting.

That being said, there are ways to mitigate the effects of these challenges. The activity-based, or hybrid, office combines traditional and open office spaces, all while introducing modern features to accommodate for an increasingly dynamic work day. With the activity-based office, floors or sections are divided by task: one section of a floor could be filled with private offices, another with mainly workstations, and one more with cafes and social hubs. Employees can relocate to fit the needs of their day. Private, isolated areas are essential for this office type such as small meeting rooms and enclosed phone booths. Offering this variety of spaces in offices can help to give employees more options and flexibility.

This can further be optimized by looking at employees by business unit and job type. For salesmen who are often on the road, a flex working environment may be ideal but for accountants who tend to be at their desks for longer, and need to focus, cubes may be better. By understanding the needs and behavior of different employees, companies can make decisions which would allow their employees to thrive in the open office. Workplace IoT and Big Data can help managers to make accurate and meaningful decisions in this regard.

An overlooked component of the success in an open office environment is “place identity,” or the way an employee feels about his or her work space.  A 2018 Harvard Business Review article claims that the physical features of the office may not be the problem – instead, employee experience depends on whether or not they feel a sense of belonging in the office. In order to have employees view the open office layout as collaborative and energetic, as opposed to noisy and cluttered, managers must clearly communicate the vision of the open office before the change, help workers acclimate, and encourage employees to take advantage of the flexibility of the open office. Without workplace leaders creating a positive, experimental attitude, the open office is unlikely to succeed. Leaders must help employees to understand that the open office is as much a community as it is a work space.

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