It’s the trend sweeping the nation. Since about 2012, the concept of ditching the cubicle farm for wide open workspaces became the poster child of the progressive workplace. The young and hip flocked to these often start-up companies, but slowly, the concept spread to more traditional companies. In that time, the advantages and disadvantages have come to light, along with how different generational groups adjust to the plan. Even traditional law firms are grappling with the concept as they ponder how to create a working environment that is sustainable now and into the future when 75% of the workforce will be millennials by the year 2030. As open workplaces continue to stick around, companies and employees alike have had to adjust to meet the varied needs of the workforce.
One of the stated benefits of an open office lies in the belief that removing walls creates an atmosphere of collaboration among employees. Traditionally, trapped in a cubicle with the boss in a closed-door office, to communicate required physically going to a location where the other person is, or more accurately using phones, email, or chats to communicate with others, thus obstructing the spontaneous flow of communication and creativity.
Having open offices can also create a perception, real or imagined, of equality regardless of tenure or title. Having access to the boss has been shown to increase approachability, allow the manager to view employee interactions and performance first hand, and address positive or negative behavior in a timely manner. Even walking into an open-air office can boost morale leading to productive and engaged employees. Often offices designed in this way are visually interesting, colorful, and buzzing with activity, rather than a broad swatch of gray cubicles. It can allow the employer the ability to scale up fairly easily just by shifting people around, rather than investing in individual work areas. There seem to be a lot of benefits for an employer to adopt this style.
Is there a flip side to the benefits? The biggest challenge is probably distractions. Without the barrier of cubicle or office walls, every sidebar, phone call, TV show discussion and spontaneous collaboration reverberates around the office whether you want to hear it or not. Some studies even describe a phenomenon of false productivity, in other words, employees doing busy work to appear productive since the boss is always within sight. This issue can lead to stress for the employee due to the perception of being constantly watched and result in a lack of focus on real work.
Perhaps the biggest challenge though is for introverts. People in this category often need solitude and quiet space even if just periodically throughout the workday, and open workspaces can be an energy drain for them. So, what is the best way to manage an open workspace environment that meets the needs of all employees?
If you’re a decision maker, consider designing or incorporating quiet spaces where employees can move to as needed, particularly helpful if employees have laptops. Also, encourage employees to adjust the space to work best for them, whether this is listening to music with earbuds, setting boundaries with coworkers such as designated quiet times, or allowing flexibility to work away from the team for times when great focus is needed. For certain roles, it may even be appropriate to allow some remote work at home flexibility.
If you work in an open office, consider your surroundings. If you’re the extrovert sitting next to the introvert, be mindful when your neighbor may need some uninterrupted focus time. If you are the one in need of a distraction free zone, speak up. Ask your neighbors for the quiet time or space to work on a project. See if rearranging your seating or desk set up is helpful to block out noise and distractions.
Overall, studies conclude that while there may be challenges, there are numerous benefits to be considered. With some alterations, it is a setup that can work for everyone. If you don’t work in an open workspace now, you might very well in the near future, so making it work for you is the smart choice. It looks like this is one trend that’s here to stay.