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Since the mid-2000s, the open-office layout has dominated design trends in American workplaces, thanks in large part to the unconventional offices of Silicon Valley tech giants Google and Facebook.
Related: 9 Rules of Open-Office Etiquette
As office walls came down nationwide, business leaders discovered that the move not only opened up more space for equipment and staff, but also fostered conversation, collaboration and team-building among employees. Today, about 70 percent of U.S. offices utilize open workspaces.
However, recent studies have claimed that the open-office model causes employees more harm than good. Researchers argue that this type of work environment creates more disruptions and distractions, increases the spread of illness, generates more stress, decreases creativity and productivity and results in lower employee morale.
The way I see it, office design, like everything in life, is not one-size-fits-all. The problems with the open office lie not in the concept, but in the limitations business leaders have placed upon it. That’s why, even in the face of these negative reports, I stand by this modern workspace design -- as long as business leaders provide the proper balance to make it work.
Zen and the art of workplace design
Over the years, my company has experimented with various office designs, some more successful than others. But overall I’ve found that my team works best in an open-office setting.
Removing the physical barriers that once separated our employees has opened up new levels of communication, idea-sharing and problem-solving. And, yes, this layout has generated a greater sense of camaraderie among staffers working together toward a shared goal.
However, I recognize that some people simply need quiet or isolation to be their most productive selves. They just can’t focus with so much movement and conversation around them, which is why I believe the “balanced workspace” trend is the office design of the future.
This design model calls for more variety in the workspaces within an open office, including secluded or low-disruption areas for those who need fewer distractions in their workdays.
One example of a well-balanced workplace is the New York City loft office of online investment company Betterment. Its multilevel office is largely open floor space, furnished with couches, work benches, tables and even lounge chairs.
But the space also boasts closed-off sections, such as conference rooms for distraction-free meetings, and “The Library,” where noise must be kept to a minimum. This balanced layout has helped the company become an efficient startup in terms of productivity and morale.
Promoting productivity through balance
Whether starting from scratch or modifying a work in progress,business leaders should evaluate the diverse needs of their employees, designing a space that offers a variety of areas from which to work. Here are a few design ideas to get you started:
1. Create quiet zones.
While open offices are great for teamwork, they can generate a lot of noise. For employees who find noise bothersome, provide a quieter space away from the hustle and bustle of the shared workspace.
Set up a few couches in a corner of the main area with signage that discourages phone calls or talking. Or construct a few small, closed-off rooms at the edge of the office for important meetings or individualized work.
2. Allow headphones in the office.
Personally, I love listening to music at work; it helps me focus and knock out any project on my plate. But to others, music is just another concentration-breaker.
So, rather than play music over speakers at workstations or throughout the office, allow staff members to bring headphones to work. That way, they can either listen to music or enjoy the silence.
3. Let the natural light flow.
Studies have shown that employees exposed to natural light during the workday are less stressed and less sleep-deprived than those who work in windowless offices. That’s another great benefit of choosing the open office layout.
When it comes to finding the best location or design for your open office, look for a place with a clear view of the outside world. Opting for big windows and lots of natural light will decrease employee stress and build a more productive, creative team.
4. Think beyond the office chair.
Sitting from 9 to 5 every workday is truly terrible for you. In fact, it can bring on a whole host of health problems and even take years off your life.
So, when designing an open office space that encourages employees to mingle and collaborate, get creative with seating. Look into standing desks, yoga balls, lounge chairs and treadmill desks. Or, find other ways to encourage employees to interact and stay active, like game tables (foosball, ping-pong, pool, etc.), yoga time or meditation breaks.
5. Open your doors to new horizons.
Traveling has a big impact on creativity, and sending your employees on business trips has big psychological benefits. Adam Galinsky, a Columbia School of Business professor, is the author of several studies backing the connection between travel and neuroplasticity. Look for opportunities to send your employees out into the world, and break down the walls around your office building.
While the open office design may have some flaws, it’s not a lost cause. By recognizing the needs of a diverse workforce and incorporating some distraction-free zones into your office, you can achieve a balance that promotes collaboration, boosts productivity and keeps employees happy.