A workspace trend that first gained momentum during the startup craze of the mid-aughts, the open-plan office now seems ubiquitous across a wide range of industries. The specific layouts and amenities associated with these layouts vary from company to company, but these environments typically all include large communal tables or rows of desks, a kitchen space, an area with couches or comfy chairs, and a complete lack of walls or clear boundaries separating the workers from each other. In theory, this feels like an excellent way to foster team unity and to encourage face-to-face interactions between colleagues.
However, a recent study by Harvard University may refute these assumptions. According to Inc., Harvard researchers discovered that open-plan offices reduced face-to-face communication by a whopping 70 percent, which in turn resulted in a decrease in productivity. Inc. editor Geoffrey James minced no words regarding his opinion of open offices, decrying them as “the dumbest management fad of all time." And although open offices are highly in-vogue these days, James may be correct about their less-than-effective structure, which allows for constant distractions and interruptions due to a lack of clearly defined spaces.
If you’re looking for an alternative to an open office that promotes a productive atmosphere and positive in-person collaboration, we have a few suggestions. The following suggestions are compromises between a traditional everyone-in-separate-offices layout (which may be cost-prohibitive) and an open-plan workplace.
While offering everyone individual offices may not fit your company’s budget, devoting office spaces to small work teams allows workers to stay in close contact with their direct collaborators and, at the same time, eliminates the sometimes-chaotic nature of a totally open office plan. Creating discrete areas for teams also offers the opportunity for workspace customization; teams and individuals can decide how to decorate and structure their own offices or enclaves, giving them the ability to make their environments conducive to their needs and their workflows.
A recent roundup by Snacknation proposed a promising middle ground for companies who aren’t well served by the open office, but who don’t want to make a full-scale shift to enclosed workspaces. Their suggestion, the “multi-environment office," urges companies to use the flexible square-footage of their former “open offices” to their advantages by sectioning off areas of the room and designating a specific purpose for each new region. For instance, if employees want quiet enclaves where they can take phone calls, create “phone booths” along a wall for that express purpose. Or, if a standing-desk area is of interest, set up a few and encourage employees to sign up for their use. Snacknation points out that inexpensive, DIY methods (like using wooden frames or screens in lieu of full-scale walls) can be used to break up the large open office and make it more functional.
If movies like “Office Space” can be believed, the cubicle represents the ultimate corporate tyranny, encouraging companies to dehumanize their employees and turn them into mere cogs in a machine. But, of course, we can’t draw all life-related wisdom from Mike Judge comedies (tempting though it may be). In reality, the cubicle model may hold merits now absent in the Age of the Open Office. Fortune Magazine contributor Kabir Sehgal makes the following argument in favor of cubicles: “Cubicles actually absorb and reduce sounds, and their walls cut down on visual distractions. All this makes it easier to perform better at your job. For example, cubicles seamlessly integrate technology by incorporating power and data management in panels, so you can easily plug in and situate your monitor without disturbing your colleagues. Moreover, cubicles give architects and designers flexibility when designing office spaces.” He does mention that cubicles can be pricey, which may discourage budget-conscious companies from considering them. However, because cubicles provides workers with environments that encourage higher productivity, Sehgal argues that their cost becomes a fair trade-off for stronger results and happier employees.
Say your company can’t afford to redesign its open office space, but you as a manager notice a worrying slump in work quality and consider your office’s distracting atmosphere a contributing factor to this downward spiral. Offering your employees the ability to work from home for a specified number of days per week (or allowing flexible work-from-home schedules) can be a low-priced way to solve this issue. Of course, it’s not a feasible option for all workplaces, but if your field of work can be effectively performed by remote employees, it’s a possibility worth considering.