Is the Open Office Plan Dead?

Last year a Harvard Business School associate professor (Ethan Bernstein) led the first empirical study measuring both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after two Fortune 500 companies moved to an open barrier-free workspace.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, the study found that, with the open workspace, personal interactions dropped approximately 70% while electronic interactions increased between 22% and 50%.  After this study was released (which some industry professionals have challenged), countless articles have been written that the open office plan is another misguided corporate management fad and the real reason for its adoption is to reduce costs by densely packing workers into a smaller space.  While there’s certainly a cost benefit to a more open plan with a smaller footprint, particularly as rents in many markets are hitting historic heights, in this post I briefly discuss how a thoughtfully-crafted open office plan can increase personal interaction and productivity while contributing to the retention and recruitment of talent.

First, there needs to be some definition of the term “Open Office”. The Harvard Study (Bernstein, ES, Turban, S. “The Impact of the ‘Open’ Workspace on Human Collaboration.” Art. 239. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 373:20170239) does not identify the two multinational, Fortune 500 Companies they chose to study, but each was a global headquarters.  In Study 1, the company “decided to use the latest open office workstation products to completely transfer the wall-bounded workspace in its headquarters so that one entire floor was open, transparent and boundaryless”.  That seems to paint a picture of workstations with minimal partitions so that everyone is visible. The company in Study 2 similarly redesigned their space to be completely open without partitions. That’s unlike the traditional office configuration where private offices and cubicles with partitions offer privacy to someone seated.  At its most extreme, this Open Office environment can take the form of “bench seating” with minimal space between workers.

The theory behind Open Office is to foster collaboration and enhance collective intelligence.  Classic examples can be found at many start-up companies as well as today’s global technology leaders.  Over the past several years, we’ve seen many companies (including many non-tech companies) embrace the barrier-free open office space after ditching their cubicles and private offices with the hope of increasing collaboration.  As “one size does not fit all”, there have been many instances where this open plan led to the exact opposite results, as documented in this Harvard study.

Three cautionary tales from the Harvard study:

  1. Human Desire for Privacy – no one wants to live in a “fishbowl” as there is an innate human desire to seek out privacy by other means, e.g., wearing noise-cancelling headphones. As everyone is “on stage”, there is also a reluctance to converse with a colleague out of a concern that they will be overheard.
  2. Over-stimulation & Distraction – the audio and visual distractions lead to over-stimulation and challenges one’s attention and focus. That has led many to work remotely which, again, is counter to the entire purpose.
  3. Alternative Communication Channels – in an effort to seek privacy, many turn to alternative means to communicate which is frequently electronic, e.g., e-mail, instant messenger, etc.…

How to avoid these pitfalls and tailor a plan that supports your business?

  1. Workplace Strategy – work with an experienced architect who has workplace strategy experience and can probe by asking the right questions at all levels in the organization to unearth how your business works and how the right space can enable its success. This creates the foundation for a successful office re-design.
  2. Engagement – be sure that everyone at every level of the company is engaged in the process and their voices are heard.
  3. Create Privacy & Focus Areas – while the barrier-free space will typically allow a workspace to maximize the amount of natural light, thought must be given to create rooms and work areas to protect one’s sense of privacy and allow for “heads-down” work. As a result, the space becomes more of a hybrid with open space and partitions.
  4. Acoustics – to allow your employees to focus and be productive, carefully consider the sound limits on your space. Many companies today are drawn to the industrial chic space with exposed ceilings and concrete floors.  While that looks great, without the right acoustical controls, the space can be a very loud and disruptive environment.  Some ways to limit sound include sound masking systems, acoustical cloud ceilings, movable partitions, and alternative flooring materials.
  5. Create Social Places – to foster authentic collaboration, create places where your employees can gather and socialize.
  6. Change Management – with any major change in an organization, there is going to be a drop in productivity. To minimize the loss of productivity and successfully guide the organization through the transition, a company should consider working with a change management consultant.  Their process is to educate and communicate to your employees as they prepare and go through the transition.

This holistic approach will ensure that you have a workspace that fosters collaboration, maximizes productivity and is a place that will make your employees love coming to work!

Don Wenig
Blackacre Advisors LLC

DISCLAIMER.   Our writings are from a real estate transaction perspective and for informational purposes only. Nothing herein shall be considered legal, accounting, tax, or architectural advice. Please consult with the appropriate professional(s).

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