Around 80 percent of all offices are now open plan in the US.
This is staggering for two reasons.
First, it wasn’t long ago that cubicles were so common that they were the butt of Dilbert cartoons and at least one feature-length film.
But secondly, open offices have been getting a bad rap for years. So much so that many organizations are looking for ways to move away from open plan offices and toward more flexible and productive mixed-use spaces.
Open Offices Aren’t Everything They Were Cracked Up to Be
Once positioned as the epitome of collaboration and creativity, it appears that open plan offices have fallen flat.
Rather than inspire employees to work together to create incredible things, they cause them to be more switched off than ever.
According to designer Amar Singh, open office employees suffer according to almost every metric. They have more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress and lower levels of concentration.
The result? Much lower worker output.
Office design company Haworth has quantified the loss of productivity suffered by open plan office workers. The company’s Designing for Focus Work study found that workers lose 28 percent of their productive time because of interruptions and distractions.
Open plan offices can be particularly detrimental to the mental well-being of employees, too. Research by musician and blogger Andy Mort found open offices can be incredibly tough on introverts. These layouts are not just a source of distraction; they are a source of anxiety.
But Cubicles Aren’t the Answer, Either
With mounting evidence against open offices, it would be understandable for organizations to return to the era of cubicles.
But cubicles are no better.
As career coach Ashley Stahl points out, cubicles often create even more distractions. They aren’t private offices, after all. Employees can still hear one another, and distractions still occur as a result.
Thus, while companies see cubicles as a cost-saving measure, the loss of productivity is often a far more substantial cost.
Employees find them miserable, too. Harvard Business Review’s Sarah Green Carmichael cites research that shows workers in cubicles are the most miserable and had the lowest satisfaction ratings in 13 of the 15 factors studied.
If open offices aren’t the answer and neither are cubicles, then what is?
Flexible Mixed-Use Spaces Are
What if you could combine the best of both worlds? A workspace that provides collaborative spaces, as well as private areas for focused work?
The truth is that there are some aspects of open offices that can be beneficial to employees and companies as a whole.
Research by Gemma Irving, a postdoctoral research fellow in strategy at the University of Queensland, found that teams had mostly positive experiences in open plan offices. They are particularly effective for teams working on collaborative and connected tasks in which employees need to quickly exchange information or can learn something relevant from overheard conversations. Her study also showed, however, that rules for sharing the space were crucially important to the success of an open plan office.
But rather than dictate rules in the office which can (and almost certainly will) be broken, why not redesign the office to be flexible enough to cater for everyone?
Flexibility is certainly in demand. A 2016 poll by office provider Compass found that workers value flexibility over almost anything else.
Flexible spaces are also incredibly cost-effective, as Taylor Landis points out at Small Biz Daily. Rather than spending time and money redesigning your office when you grow or relocate, you simply change the space yourself or take your office with you.
So, if flexible, mixed-use spaces are the answer, how can office designers create them without spending too much time or money?
How to Create Flexible Mixed-Use Spaces
Whether you have an open plan office or rows of cubicles, creating mixed-use spaces is surprisingly straightforward.
Start With Your Culture
Bill Himmelstein, CEO of Tenant Advisory Group, believes that building an office that is the best of both worlds starts with “understanding your culture and how your people work.” No offices are identical, and neither are the needs of employees. As such, it is important to give your employees a say in the matter.
Often, there is a disconnect between what managers think and the reality that employees face. While managers may like to keep an eye on workers with an open plan environment, employees may be craving solitude in order to focus. By involving everyone in the decision you can ensure all needs are met — whether those needs include more collaborative spaces, private offices or even soundproof phone booths.
Create a Palette of Place
The idea of creating a space for everyone is hugely important according to Steelcase. They call this idea a “palette of place,” and it is one where workers have “the choice over where and how they work,” writes Chris Congdon, the company’s director of global research communications.
The idea is to create specific zones that allow workers to control the level of sensory stimulation they experience. That means creating spaces where employees are completely free of interruption, but also spaces where colleagues can collaborate.
It is important to put employees in charge. This gives employees “empowerment to choose” — something that Joyce Yu, founder of health and wellness brand Instinctli, considers a core concept in designing a productive workplace. By giving employees the ability to control their surroundings, Yu explains, we “allow the space to come alive and become activated by the people.”
Build a Eudaimonia Machine
Those who want an example of how a “palette of place” can be organized need look no further than the Eudaimonia Machine. Referenced in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, the Eudaimonia Machine is the brainchild of architect professor David Dewane.
As Strong Project’s blog explains, the concept is simple. It is a rectangular space made up of five separate rooms without hallways. This means that you must pass through each space to get to the very end.
The first is the gallery, which contains examples of deep work produced within the machine. It acts as the inspiration for the space.
The next section is the salon. According to Dewane, this space is meant to develop a mood that “hovers between intense curiosity and argumentation”. With Wi-Fi and coffee available, it is a space of collaboration to debate and develop ideas that can be worked on further inside the machine.
The third space is the library. Here you would find a permanent record of all work created inside the machine, books and other resources, as well as copiers and scanners. It is the place to find and store information.
Next is the office. This is the place for low-intensity activity. Cubicles and desks are present, as is a whiteboard and a conference room.
Finally, there is the chamber. This section is actually a collection of deep work chambers, conceived by Dewane to be six feet by ten feet and protected by soundproof walls. Here, employees can experience total focus and a completely uninterrupted workflow.
Make Private Areas Private
It isn’t enough to have a section of the office sectioned off for “private work.”
Lindsey Kaufman, in her experience-backed article in the Washington Post, urges companies to create private spaces that are actually private — “ones without fishbowl windows.”
If you are creating private work areas, pods or offices are essential. You need to create an environment that is free from all sensory stimulations — sight, sound and smell.
Doing so allows employees to achieve deep focus away from the fear of being watched, the distraction of people walking past or the smell of the cafeteria.
It is something that Stack Overflow has found to be priceless. Dave Fullerton, the company’s VP of engineering, concedes that Stack Overflow is “decidedly lonely” in offering private offices, but he certainly believes the company is reaping the benefits. By offering employees privacy, it allows them to work to their own unique rhythm and to be productive at the times when they are most productive — rather than having to abide by an executive-inspired view of how work is mean to be done.
Make It Moveable
For many, mixed-use will still mean static. And that simply shouldn’t be the case. A mixed-use workspace is inherently flexible, and that flexibility should be at the heart of the design.
Artwork company Turning Art agrees that making a space moveable allows workers to have the best of both worlds. That way, they can have areas to put their heads down to focus, but they can also create an area where they can collaborate. This, they say, is why Citrix Systems has most of its furniture on wheels.
This is the kind of solution that is perfect for small offices or small companies expecting to grow. Building your space with desks, chairs and even walls that are moveable makes for a cost-effective way of creating mixed-use spaces that can be transformed as your company grows and changes.
With mixed-use spaces, organizations really can have their cake and eat it, too. Increased productivity and improved employee morale are just a redesign away.