The latest trend in office design might promote collaboration and innovation, but studies show it can negatively impact employees. Here's how to find a balance.
A few weeks ago, some colleagues and I were invited to a meeting held in a state-of-the-art conference room at a popular co-working space in Lower Manhattan. As we walked through the open floor plan of the co-working space, one of my colleagues–the CEO of a large technology company–turns to us and asks, “How does anyone get any work done here?”
We looked around to see people chatting, typing, and conducting phone meetings. The environment was busy and noisy and anyone trying to focus on the task at hand could easily get distracted.
And therein lies the problem.
When the open office trend took off a few years ago, it heralded a new era of collaboration. The wall-less environments would revolutionize the way we work, promote teamwork, and foster a culture of innovation. Businesses jumped on the bandwagon and tore down cubicle walls faster than the main character does in the movie Office Space.
But, as the popularity of this new way of office life surged, so did the studies. According to the Journal of Environmental Psychology, noise and privacy loss was associated as the main source of work space dissatisfaction and the “benefits of enhanced interaction didn’t offset disadvantages in open-plan offices.” Another study, conducted by the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management, suggested that this type of floor plan produces an increase in noise, conflict, stress, and turnover. From a personal perspective, I’ve heard stories of managers and executives ducking into stairwells and closets to take confidential calls and/or conduct critical meetings.
As it turns out, the open office life isn’t the end-all be-all solution we once thought it was. So, how do we course correct and improve productivity? Here are a few ideas:
Find out what works best for your employees
A diverse workforce comes with a diverse set of needs. Not every single employee will thrive in a bustling environment or have the capacity to “tune out” the noise. You might discover that a particular group or department performs better when they have quiet places to work or a private area to conduct meetings. Environment preferences depend on your employees and the type of work they are trying to accomplish.
Regularly check in with your staff to find out which type of environments they work best in or the what they need to do their job. You can then create an atmosphere that best fits their needs.
Strike a balance
While open offices might not be a one-size-fits-all solution, the opposite comes with disadvantages as well. Many companies today are looking into hybrid approach–a blend of open spaces and private areas for employees to use as needed.
Fortune suggests that the next generation of office floorplans will cater to this balanced approach. A hybrid office will combine “private offices, cubicle banks and truly open floor plans (in which even cubicle dividers are dismantled) as well as communal areas and soundproof rooms where employees can go to concentrate on solo work.”
While the hybrid solution is a viable compromise, this approach to office life is missing one major component: the mobile worker.
The Digital Age has made it easy for workers to be productive on the go–they can access files, chat with coworkers, and even participate in meetings wherever they get mobile reception or WiFi.
So, instead of sinking a ton of remodeling resources into the physical office space, determine how you can make it easier for your workforce to be productive anywhere in the world. Some suggestions on how to do this would include:
- Provide employees with portable WiFi hotspots
- Create a practical cloud-based infrastructure with the right apps to support the business
- Invest in new tech like VR in order to conduct virtual prototype meetings
- Ban paper use in the office
The key here is to make it easier for employees to get things done when and where they need to–whether that’s by making documents accessible via the cloud or investing in an online collaboration tool that allows employees to easily connect regardless of location.
This, of course, brings up the debate on working from home. IBM once boasted about their company’s ability to let employees work remotely–only to recently call them all back into the office. The reason? The company released a statement saying, “In many fields, such as software development and digital marketing, the nature of work is changing, which requires new ways of working. We are bringing small, self-directed, agile teams in these fields together.”
So, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution with mobile enablement, either. Which brings me to my next point: the omni office approach.
Introducing the omni office approach
At Centric Digital, we often recommend that our clients provide customers with an omni channel approach. This digital strategy consists of a cross-channel business model that companies use to improve their customer experience. The result is a seamless experience whether a customer is on the company website or physically in a brick-and-mortar store.
Similar to this customer-facing digital strategy, smart businesses should consider introducing the omni office approach to employees. This strategy would encompass everything mentioned above: employee preferences, a hybrid physical environment, and the ability to work on the go. As the business world becomes more digital, the omni office approach would allow companies to remain flexible, while providing workers with a seamless office experience.
Of course, in order for this to approach to succeed, you’d need to work closely with management to ensure they are enabling employees to work how and where they are most productive. Sometimes that might mean a day or two working from home, but it is up to the manager to discern what will work best for the employee. If a role requires the physical presence of an employee in the office or if a particular employee seems distracted when working from home, then the manager needs to adjust the approach as needed. Flexibility is key.
While it’s becoming apparent that the open office environment is posing legitimate threats to productivity and healthy stress levels, the current proposed solutions seem to be lacking digital foresight. The solution is to not shoehorn one approach and claim it is better than the others. Instead, we must be conscious of the changes in today’s business world and ensure we are adapting with the changing needs of our employees.