I used to work at a newspaper desperate to appear cutting edge. They spent thousands renovating their cubicle farm to an open-office space. The problem? It was noisy and distracting. People were on the phone all day long. The desks were too close together and the woman loudly reciting a robotic sales pitch to potential customers drove everyone nuts. (I still remember her pitch word-for-word.)
Still, senior managers (who could escape to their own private offices) must have been proud. Boy look at how progressive we are!
Too often, managers think open offices are a magic pill that’ll lead to more collaboration, increased productivity and happier employees—and they apply it blindly. Hey, it worked at Google, let’s do it here. That lazy approach doesn’t consider whether open offices are actually right for your specific workplace. For some, open offices are a godsend and a welcome change from bleak cubicles. For others, an open layout is a major distraction with too much noise and stimulation, destroying concentration and making focus work nearly impossible. Open offices are also prone to thieves, make you sick and make women feel as if they’re constantly being watched.
In many cases, it doesn’t even serve its intended purpose: fostering face-to-face communication. A Harvard study of two Fortune 500 companies found that people in open-offices spent 72 percent less time interacting in person—but instant messaging increased by 67 percent and email increased 56 percent.
“If you’re working in an execution-type role, open offices are a double whammy,” said Ben Waber, CEO and co-founder of people analytics software firm Humanyze. “You’re getting less focus work done because you’re being interrupted and you’re talking less to your team.”
Still, we’re not going to back to private offices any time soon. The economics and flexibility of the open floor plan are just too attractive to companies based in dense urban settings. But the open floor plan can work, provided you apply it in the right settings and with the right conditions. Lame suggestions like “just buy everyone headphones” won’t suffice. You need real solutions to modify your open floor office and help your team be productive and happy. Here are seven things you can do right now:
- Deaden sound. Installing acoustical clouds on the ceiling, carpet on the floors and sound-masking speakers in strategic locations. “No one wants to hear everyone else’s conversation,” said Christopher Liu, assistant professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto. “Deaden the sound. It’s a no-brainer.”
- Don’t cram people too close together. People should be about 10 feet from one another in open offices, according to Judith Olson, a distance-work expert at the University of California at Irvine. That’s just enough space to allow people to feel comfortable, still see what co-workers are up to in the periphery, but not invade personal space.
- Break up open spaces with meeting rooms or phone booths. If someone finds themselves doing heads-down focus work, give them the option to reserve a quiet space. If a team is going to have a three-hour brainstorming meeting, sequester them in a room rather than having them bother everyone else. Installing phone booths is another effective strategy. It allows employees to work primarily in an open environment but not distract others when they’re making calls. Bonus: phone booths are small and don’t take up much space.
- Create a culture where workstations change periodically. What’s optimal today may not be optimal tomorrow. If employees will be conducting focus work for the next month, move them a more private area temporarily. If they’re in collaboration mode the following month, move them back to the open environment. The Gensler 2016 U.S. Workplace Survey found that innovative companies offer employees twice the amount of choices of when and where to work than less innovative companies. “As you grow, the needs of the workers will change, so it’s natural that the physical environment might need to be updated depending on how dynamic the organization is,” said Liu.
- Design temporary barriers. These can snap into a ceiling or slide out ‘accordian style’ from the walls. “I really like reconfigurable walls,” said Waber. “One of our customers has walls they can be put up in a couple hours, typically overnight. They don’t just block vision—like putting a whiteboard in front of somebody—they also block sound. To make use of that effectively, you need an operation that can reevaluate every week or month to determine whether that’s appropriate.”
- Watch out for usage conflicts. People respond to the messages an environment is sending. A library says be quiet. A nightclub says be loud. So be wary of the messages you’re sending with your work environment. Don’t put a bay of desks next to a sofa and coffee table. “One functionality tells me to be quiet and the other says have a conversation,” said Kerstin Sailer, an expert in social and spatial networks from the University College London. “If you’re lounging on a sofa, it looks like you’re not working. If you’re hanging out there talking with someone, it looks like you’re not working—or you’ll be bothering people. What is next to what is extremely important.”
- Don’t make your employees suffer in silence—empower them to speak up. If employees feel constantly interrupted and distracted by the open office, make sure they’re empowered to say so. If they’re suffering in silence, presenteeism goes up and employee retention goes down.