Ready to Kill Your Company's Open-Floor Plan? Drop the Machete.
Would you work in a cocoon that looks like a 2001: A Space Odyssey set piece? Architect Michelle Kaufmann, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Google hope your answer is a resounding “Yes!”
Their distinctively strange, mesmerizing Transformable Meeting Space is designed to vanquish the limitations inherent in open workspaces. Each cubicle descends from the ceiling with the tug of a pulley system, offering a small conference room that jibes with Google’s airy layout.
Related: 9 Rules of Open-Office Etiquette
This Chinese finger trap of a meeting space is a prototype only a minimalist could love, but it just might silence the open floor-plan haters of the world. Or not -- because there are after all so many haters.
Indeed, decades into the future, our offspring will still be reading angry articles ripping open floor plans to shreds. According to opponents, these layouts lead to excessive noise, irritation, a lack of privacy and short attention spans. The Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health even found that open workplaces lead to increased employee absenteeism. And don’t get the Swedes started on the consequences for introverts.
To many, this workplace battle might seem like a black-and-white debate but it’s another false dilemma. In reality, an office layout can serve many masters.
Negate the negativity.
Truthfully, there are drawbacks to open-concept workspaces. And while remote working arrangements are also in vogue, those arrangements have their own issues. Importantly, neither is a cure-all for what ails companies. At the same time, neither is inherently evil, either (despite what naysayers insist).
You’ll have Negative Nancys and Pessimistic Petes no matter what you do, so forget about pleasing the pack when figuring out whether to embrace an open floor plan. There are benefits and drawbacks associated with every work arrangement possible.
My company recently wrestled with the open-space conundrum. Upon moving into our second Galvanize location in Phoenix, we customized the 6,000-square-foot space to meet the needs of our multigenerational team. Some folks were more vocal than others about preferred work environments, so we evaluated personalities, roles and work styles.
We ultimately bundled them into a workplace design with the right mix to satisfy everyone.
My team’s journey illustrated that you don’t have to make open-concept workspaces either-or decisions. You simply need to keep your options open and be willing to make concessions.
Create alignment without absorbing opportunity costs.
Plenty of companies prefer open-concept workplaces. Coca-Cola’s headquarters in India switched to open-office layouts, and company officials claimed that the change transformed everyday behaviors and encouraged more cross-functional communication.
The International Facility Management Association found that about seven out of 10 U.S. businesses surveyed had adopted this model, and found that it isn’t just for the working stiffs; 42 percent of organizations surveyed said they too were putting executives in nontraditional spaces, to mingle with the crowd.
Wide-open spaces create contextual alignment. For example, a salesperson might overhear an engineer explaining a new software feature; the information he learns might then help him close a deal.
In another example, company leaders might be using a specific acronym at 8:30 a.m. to describe a new business focus. While perhaps only a handful of people will have previously heard the term, the increased communication inherent in an open workspace will ensure it becomes common knowledge by 3 p.m.
What’s the downside of an open workspace? There are admittedly more negatives, when you think about people hopping in and out of conversations, or being sidetracked from their work.
Picking which Korean BBQ to visit for lunch turns into a 10-minute conversation involving 15 people, effectively costing the company $1,000 in opportunity costs. That’s some damn expensive bibimbap.
So, yes, open floor plans are all about taking the good with the occasionally frustrating. Oh, and it's often a good idea to make sure employees invest in some high-quality headphones.
Boost employee retention remotely.
On the other hand, if you’re seeking an argument against remote work arrangements, you need not look far. People love to complain that remote employees don’t get tasks done, that video conferencing is a joke (thanks to someone's cat hacking up a hairball during a client pitch).
They argue that team communication goes down the tubes and that workers become distracted by personal “errands” when no one’s watching.
But for all these would-be problems, companies such as Automattic -- the company behind WordPress -- are making remote working a reality. The company boasts 400 employees in 40 countries, which makes sense considering that the internet is its home base. Employees either work from their home offices or in co-working spaces the company rents.
Automattic’s model appears to be working, as some departments boast a perfect employee retention rate, according to Distant Job.
We haven’t gotten quite that far at our company, but we do offer employees the opportunity to work from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays (in addition to other remote work options). This approach keeps employees happy by accommodating their lifestyle, and we haven’t observed any productivity issues. What's more, our shift to a remote plan aligns with what’s happening around the country, according to a study by Gallup that found that 43 percent of workers complete some tasks remotely four to five days a week.
Pigeonholing will be our undoing.
Here's an interesting note: Silicon Valley Bank changed its floor plan in 2012 by adding “huddle rooms” and “phone booths.” That action was a response to criticism from team members about the company’s open-concept design. Now, the Wall Street Journal reports that more than half of Silicon Valley Bank’s locations have been remodeled accordingly.
The message here is that businesses that listen to their employees’ wishes for variety often turn out the same way, ultimately landing on a mix that suits every work style. This diversified approach ensures that no one feels pigeonholed, and helps corporate values, work, customer goals and team dynamics line up.
A study by furniture retailer Knoll found that 69 percent of workers identified as "highly satisfied" felt they had a variety of spaces in their office to accommodate different work activities.
Related: The Open-Office Concept Is Dead
Tomorrow’s productive, efficient, motivated workforce will evolve from the office-layout decisions you make today (with or without inspiration from Google, MIT or sci-fi films). There are plenty of articles that add fuel to this false-dilemma fire, but it’s not a simple yes-or-no decision.
Find a balance among the numerous options, and be okay with embracing a few different approaches all at once -- a little remote, a little open and a little closed. Find your balance; the magic is in the middle.