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Making an Open Office Work

Monday, December 7, 2015

By: Cayley Harrell

There seems to be an ongoing battle between open office advocators and protestors. People claim open offices foster innovation while others claim they can’t focus over the noise. Both sides are true and should be listened to. Employers are dealing with Baby Boomers, Millennials, introverts, extroverts, leaders and followers. Everyone works differently and it’s the employers’ job to figure out how to make this mix of people perform their best to create the product that will make the company successful. Yes, this is daunting and takes work, but it is not impossible. 

First, let’s point out the economic benefits of having an open office plan. With a growing urban population, the need for office space is tight. Renting space is expensive and companies have budgets, so limiting the square footage per person in an office can seriously decrease the cost of rent in an office space. Large global companies like Google can afford to build office “campuses,” but most companies cannot, so they turn to downsizing to cut costs. This can be done poorly or effectively. Clearly, the amount of open office opposition indicates that a lot of companies are doing it wrong. 

What makes an open office plan fail miserably? Poor planning is a lot of the problem. You can’t just stick a bunch of employees in the same room and say, “Okay, I downsized and cut costs, problem solved.” Your employees are probably going to be upset and confused, so what is the better solution? Plan. If you know you need to switch to an open office or you just want to try out a new work ethic, tell your employees. Sit down with everyone and have a conversation with them. Maybe they are all game and ready to collaborate, but in most cases that won’t be the reaction. Either way, listen to their concerns and talk about what can be done to help them transition. Next, learn the art of compromise.

So you’ve got a few great employees that absolutely hate this idea. They are literally ready to quit if you make them sit in a room with the whole company. This is totally understandable, so let them know that and come up with a solution. Relationships on any level cannot be successful without some compromise. That being said, no company should ever switch to an open office without a room or two designated for quiet work. Think of your office like a library. Libraries have quiet rooms and collaboration rooms, so why shouldn’t your office? Libraries are catering to a community of learners who have different needs, so are you. The room you set apart for quiet work does not have to take up half of the office space. It can be small, but it needs to be a comfortable place to work. Unassigned spaces are great for these areas, so employees can focus for however long they need and leave. If you absolutely don’t have enough room for a quiet room, give your employees options. Let them leave the office for a few hours and go wherever they need to, to focus. If they don’t like that idea, then they can learn a lesson in compromising as well. 

Another thing that goes into planning a good open office is acoustics. Different materials and objects can mask different sounds. Live plants absorb sound and have been proven to increase employee happiness, so invest in some greenery around the office. Sound masking technologies can also be installed into office spaces that create an ambient noise that reduces the sound of all other noise in the office. Adding these devices to your office is the equivalent of tripling the distance between workers. When acoustics are considered in office planning, the elimination of distracting noise is pretty achievable. Employees can still focus and hear themselves think while others are having conversations. 

There are in fact surveys that show benefits of open offices when it comes to collaborating and creating ideas. If you have the right team, amazing things can happen when they spend all day communicating with each other. According to a survey by Gensler, the most productive employees are the ones who have “balanced workplaces”. These workplaces cater to the needs of their employees. It’s not an easy process, but transitioning to a well-planned open office can pay off in the long run. 

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