Open Offices: In pursuit of innovation, have companies gone too far?

Most people agree that workplaces need to change. How we work has been radically disrupted over the past two decades, largely due to the introduction of new technologies; work environments have had to change in response. But in our quest to rethink where we work, have we sacrificed too much? Has the desire to innovate put our attention, autonomy, and self-efficacy at risk?

New workplaces and newly renovated workplaces tend to be open and have more shared workspaces than designated desks, cubicles, and closed offices. They are designed to promote collaborative and wired modes of work. In many respects, these workplaces make complete sense. As more people have started to work remotely – either all or part of the time – it doesn’t make sense to assign an office or even desk to every employee. In addition, as files are increasingly stored in the cloud and not in actual drawers and filing cabinets, office space once dedicated to storage is now being wisely reassigned to other employee needs (e.g., shared meeting spaces, wellness centers, and on-site cafes). On the surface, the design of the 21st century office makes sense, but it has also come with a few consequences that we can’t continue to ignore.

We want to break down workplace clichés, and we want to get different groups of people interacting in new ways. Innovation rests on such interventions. There is no question that being in a stimulus-rich environment is great for cultivating new ideas, but one can also have “too much” stimulus. In fact, increasingly, this is precisely what I see people facing. Open offices are great in theory, but even the greatest ideas in the world are useless when it prevents you from delivering results.

This post outlines a few steps organizations can take to assess whether their innovative work environment is working and if not, how to fix it.

Consider the Pros and Cons of an Open Office

The benefits of moving to an open office are numerous. First, for all the reasons already mentioned, there can be massive cost savings. This is especially true if your organization has many employees who work remotely some or all the time. An open office can also democratize your organizational structure. When everyone is in the bullpen, so to speak, everyone feels like they are working on a level playing field. Finally, an open office can create better communication and heightened accountability. Everyone, even leaders, are seen; as a result, everyone is more accountable.

On the flipside, open offices can leave people feeling overexposed and hyper-visible. Many open offices leave people feeling distracted. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology concludes: “open-plan layouts are widely acknowledged to be more disruptive due to uncontrollable noise and loss of privacy.” It also takes energy to engage and interact with colleagues as they pass by and even more energy to regain focus in a noisy and distracting environment. As a result, energy is often  wasted in open offices just attempting to shut down incoming noise that has nothing to do with one’s work.

The real question is this: Does efficiency of space matter more than employee wellbeing?

Step Back and Engage Employees in Decision Making About Space

Every organization is different and every employee has their own specific needs and flow triggers—those conditions that enable them to deliver results, do good work, and hopefully get into flow. The first step is to start cultivating self-awareness. If you do this, you’ll get better results and your employees will be happier, more engaged, and more impactful.

Begin by asking your employees what they need to do cultivate their focus, balance and awareness. Are they seeking more spaces to collaborate or are they desperate for an isolation chamber? Are they feeling over stimulated by their work environment? Are they spending less time on site because it’s too noisy or distracting? Or are they craving something else–do they want more joy or humor in the workplace? If you don’t ask, you’ll likely have no idea what your employees actually need to do their best work.

It is also important to consider other potential factors. In some organizations, private spaces are more important because one is working with highly confidential materials that simply can’t be left exposed on a desk or screen in an open office. In other organizations, constant meetings with clients demand a higher number of separate, soundproof spaces. But private spaces shouldn’t simply be for security and meetings with outside clients.

Don’t Abandon Open Offices but Do Recognize Their Limits

Open offices have revolutionized our work environments and likely will continue to do so. Yet, as workplace stress continues to escalate, especially in industries that have been heavily disrupted by new technologies, we also need to be attentive to our overall well-being. I’m not suggesting that we need to all go back to working in separate offices or cubicles. I do think that in the rush to innovate, serenity, silence, and seclusion have become undervalued and in some instances, employees and organizations are paying a high price for this oversight.

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