In 2017, I wrote a blog post about how to optimize a trendy, open workspace. At that time, we began to see a growing number of studies demonstrating the downside of working without walls—everything from increased illness and stress, to an unexpected decline in human interaction as employees did what they could to tune out distractions. Despite efforts to block out the world, employees couldn’t help but overhear their colleagues’ most sensitive, personal information—performance feedback, health problems, divorce negotiations, to name just a few.
It would be easy for me to pen an opinion about the need to swing the pendulum back the other way, touting the benefits of quieter and more private workspaces. Unfortunately, that pendulum would quickly hit a wall (pun intended) based on today’s reality. The cost per square foot of office space is on the rise, as is the number of people we need to fit into that space.
As much as I love architecture and high design, my thoughts always focus on how to help people do their best work. With that in mind, I wanted to share some themes to help organizations as they continue to optimize their space in this ever-changing world of work.
1. Acknowledge that redesigns are never actually over.
The first important theme is for companies to move away from the notion that redesigning space is a project with a discrete beginning and end. Convene, a company that creates and operates premium workplaces, recently wrote something that mirrors what I am hearing from clients – a redesign is never actually over. Ideally companies “learn what’s working and implement small changes as business needs evolve. Are people too close together? Is a common area going unused?” Every company probably has its own “magic middle” between open collaboration and private workspace. I highly encourage organizations to think about how every square foot of space is being leveraged for productivity. For example, as we reduce our use of paper, many companies have turned copy rooms into private meeting spaces. I recommend proactively observing and continually rethinking your space.
2. Address workspace issues honestly.
It is tempting, after investing in a large open workspace project, to remain optimistic and ignore the downside. Perhaps if you hold on to your pom-poms and steadfastly tout the benefits, people will adapt. As with any issue, denial is just a detour. If our goal is to enable employees to be productive in the space that we have, being honest about the issues is always a faster way to get from point A to point B. Start a conversation about how to retain some of the benefits of the open workspace, while addressing what is not working. Ensuring employees feel heard is a small, but important step towards reducing distraction. Furthermore, change management goes a long way in setting employee expectations for how to make an open space work. There is really no substitute for generating awareness and promoting “self-policing” when it comes to challenging behaviors (loud phone calls, smelly lunches, etc).
3. Understand what promotes collaboration under your roof.
Since 2005 when Google renovated its headquarters with an open floor plan, companies have been doing the same, hoping for a productivity boost from increased collaboration. Is there any actual evidence that open spaces promote collaboration and better results? The answer is yes, but it appears to be more at the team level. For example, MIT researcher Ben Waber found 10% fewer mistakes among coding teams that sat at larger (12-person) lunch tables than those that sat at small (4-person) lunch tables. “Lunch turned out to be a place where important, unplanned interactions were taking place.” Similarly, distance-work expert, Judith Olsen, did an experiment putting some teams (6-8 engineers) in war-room style workspace. These teams doubled their productivity and finished projects in about a third of the time. In each of these examples, the collaboration lift was among smaller work teams, not necessarily large numbers of people all in the same space. Consider trying similar experiments with some of your work teams to identify what really impacts speed and agility in your organization. Consider that productivity is not only about space, but leadership and collaboration tools.
4. Apply lessons learned to your next floor plan.
If you are fortunate enough to have a sprawling campus and/or a renovation budget, there are some smart things you can do to adapt your environment to design around the need for collaboration and privacy. I recently spoke with an old friend who is a leader in the NYC commercial real estate space and he put this trend in some perspective. As employers and architects look to evolve the open floor plan, it appears that space benchmarks are migrating upward, from approximately 150 square feet per employee at the outset of this trend, to a new target of 200 square feet per employee in more recent buildouts. Furthermore, architects now target a 1:1 ratio of breakout space to employee count. In other words, there should be space for every employee to either be sitting in their own seat or to have a seat in a shared breakout space at any given time. Furthermore, some real estate organizations are differentiating themselves with proprietary technology to help better manage space (i.e., reserving private spaces) and by creating communities outside of a company’s walls (i.e., shared wellness space).
5. Manage and modify what you have.
Some organizations simply need to make the most with the space they have. With that in mind, there have been some smart innovations for adapting space to meet some of the open floor plans shortcomings. In a recent Fast Company article, Liz Burow, WeWork’s director of workplace strategy, shared some thoughts about building in a variety of seating arrangements. “People have different needs throughout their day and their life,” she says. “They might need to focus at a certain point and talk to someone at another point.” To meet changing needs, WeWork uses portable pods, like phone booths, that can be dropped right into an existing layout. In addition, there are a number of technology solutions to help organizations manage coveted office space like Skedda, Desktime, and Robin. A recent blog post by The Receptionist does a great job of comparing some of these tools.
6. Strategically leverage work-from-home solutions.
If you are among the companies that find themselves both space and budget-constrained, a smart work-from-home policy may be your best bet. While some might view telecommuting as a “last resort,” I have seen work-from-home serve as the perfect complement to an open floor plan. For example, if some of the best collaboration happens when work teams share space, create a schedule that has different work teams rotating between office days and work-at-home days. With some teams out of the office, project teams can use the open workspace more optimally while in the office. Since work-at-home days are an organized event, these teams can purposefully use a myriad of collaboration tools to make the most of telecommuting days. Some companies have had so much success, they have transitioned some or all of their employees to a complete work-at-home culture (for example, Automatic, makers of WordPress).
There is no denying there are real challenges with open floor plans, but optimal productivity is about much more than space. With the right leadership and collaboration tools, I believe any company can find their magic middle. If you are looking for new ways to enable your employees to do their best work, contact me at email@example.com or (917) 612-8571.