Are Open Offices Effective?

As an executive, the odds are you have an office. Then again, if you’re at a start-up or a company that has embraced open offices, you may not have an office, but you probably have a prime spot that is in the corner. Over the past couple of years a lot has been written about the open office revolution, both for it and against it. Which begs the question, are open offices effective? 

Interestingly, open floor plans have been around a lot longer than most of us realize. The idea has been around for so long because it lowers companies cost per square foot for the same number of people. Perhaps this is why 70% of companies in the United States have adopted some form of open floor plan. However, it can also result in lowering employee satisfaction and production.

Another aspect of moving to open offices is that it would improve interactions between employees by removing physical barriers. And while people are social, there is also a need for privacy. A study from Gensler found that open offices that utilized a barrier high enough that it required people to stand to see deskmates was the most effective in terms of productivity. The lower the barrier, the less effective the layout.

The recent debate was kickstarted by Harvard business school associate professor, Ethan Bernstein. He never imagined the amount of backlash his article on open workspaces would generate. “The first paper did methodology well, and it did rigor well, and it helped answer a longstanding debate between sociologists who argue that removing spatial boundaries will increase collaboration and social psychologists have argued the opposite is true,” said Bernstein. “What we didn’t do was tell people the reason their employees stop collaborating face-to-face.”

A recent response from T3 Advisors takes a harsh look at the study itself, citing that there were only 152 participants, a lack of definition of “open space”, and limitations provided by wearing the sociometric badges. They suggest using the Leesman Index, the largest workplace research database in the world, to determine the effectiveness of office layouts.

So to address the criticism, Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently published Bernstein’s follow up article. The first article focused on the unintended consequences of open office layouts, “But as the physical and technological structures for omnichannel collaboration have spread, evidence suggests they are producing behaviors at odds with designers’ expectations and business managers’ desires. In a number of workplaces we have observed for research projects or consulting assignments, those structures have produced less interaction—or less meaningful interaction—not more.”

According to Bernstein, “Leaders need to make the call about what collective behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged and how. Their means should include not just the design of workspace configurations and technologies but the design of tasks, roles, and culture as well.”

The key to creating an effective workplace is to make it a company wide initiative. Understand how employees like to work, develop a hypothesis around the ideal office environment, test the hypothesis, and course correct from there. There are a variety of elements that can be incorporated into open offices that provide privacy. Consider whiteboards to break up space, team areas for people to meet that break up desks, variable height dividers, shelving units that can divide up space, and white noise machines are just a few ideas. 

And when testing, consider more than productivity and interruptions (two common measurements). If possible, use trackers that can measure steps, heart-rate, blood pressure, posture, and other well-being elements. You can also adjust things like lighting and temperature to see if they have an effect on productivity.

According to HBR, “A single best physical or digital workspace architecture will never be found. That’s because more interaction is not necessarily better, nor is less. The goal should be to get the right people interacting with the right richness at the right times. Many common assumptions about office architecture and collaboration are outdated or wrong. Although the open-office design is intended to encourage us to interact face-to-face, it gives us permission not to. The “accidental collisions” facilitated by open offices and free spaces can be counterproductive. In many instances, “co-presence” via an open office or a digital channel does not result in productive collaboration.”

This is not a simple issue, and making a wrong decision can result in low productivity, disengaged employees, and higher turnover. Investment upfront to get it right can save tremendously over the coming years. If you would like to discuss improving your office environment, send us a note