FM Frequency: The Free Range Office

By Charles C. Carpenter, CFM
From the March/April 2015 issue

There is a growing belief in the free range movement. The animals who spend their days in the free range environment are allowed to generate their products or toil their days in a more humane environment. If you take a look at the mobility trend in facilities, it appears that the free range movement has found itself in the built environment.

The free range office. Mobility is the rage in the workplace. Architects and designers are laying out workplaces that are free of offices and cubicles. And finance departments are happy to embrace the reduced cost of these environments. But, unlike the hens or turkeys that are content to spend their days away from a cage, the feeling among most workers is they are unhappy to be stripped of their walls and the cover of their cubicles and tossed into the free range office. This approach seems to ignore the fact that different workers have different jobs that require different conditions. It pushes collaboration to the front at the expense of focusing and possibly learning.

The multigenerational office does not mesh with the free range office. Older workers are more into “face time” that takes place away from their workstations. Meanwhile, younger workers are more into Facebook with “in-your-face” workstations. The difference in attitude might be traced back to school days. Decades ago, students sat in individual desks, often occupying these for the entire day. Schools of today feature tables where students sit together and collaborate, leveraging technology in every subject.

Younger workers, for the most part, are embracing the free range office approach. They have been learning and working in an open environment, complete with its distractions, for a large part of their lives. Meanwhile, older workers have endured a myriad of workplace styles in their work lives—offices, bull pens, pods, cubicles—that all came with some level of privacy. With people working longer, the phases of the built environment are no longer keeping pace with the cycles of the workforce.

While employers may feel that workers will adapt to the free range office, there is plenty of research to back the cube farm. Overall environmental satisfaction is composed of satisfaction with lighting, ventilation, privacy, and acoustics. As a study by researchers Veitch, Farley, and Newsham pointed out in 2002, that overall satisfaction has a lot to do with job satisfaction.

Everybody is unique; no two people are the same. What the free range thinker tends to forget it that every body is unique too. One size does not fit all. Long bench seating does not lend itself to adaptability that workers want or require; let alone to changes in lighting or acoustics.

If you ask some people about the free range office, they will tell you it stinks… literally. Putting workers in closer proximity no longer leaves odors undetected. These odors, whether body, perfume, or cuisine, are now out in the open. People have different attitudes and tolerances towards grooming and food. While buildings can be automated to provide fresh air to offset carbon dioxide levels, there are no controls in place to mitigate unpleasant smells.

Inc. magazine labeled the worker types as Thinker, Builder, Improver, and Producer. People crammed into an office may want to label their coworkers for all their traits that drive them crazy—Stinker, Hipster, Annoyer, and Spewer.

Design firm Gensler’s “Focus in the Workplace” report states that time spent on “focus” work is up to 55%. The criticality of that focus work is up to 88%, as if the late George Carlin or anyone else would tell you that their focus is not critical. Since free range offices are not touted for their focus, where is every worker supposed to spend over half their day focusing? Free range workers may lose more in productivity than what they used to spend surfing the web when they had more privacy.

Charles Carpenter
Carpenter has worked in facility management since 1995. His current “range” covers New Mexico, Arkansas, and Texas.

The old adage is that you get what you pay for. Employers may need to consider that when they move to the free range office. Veitch, et. al. correlate that job satisfaction translates into organizational commitment, employee turnover, customer satisfaction, and company performance—indicators that are harder to measure than real estate costs but are more impactful to the bottom line.

Free range supposes that workers can adapt to the environment. So, are those who change employers every few years doing so for the money, or are they really unhappy with the workplace? Even if the organization invests in the change management and education that needs to accompany a transition to the free range movement, there will always be the worker who did not read the memo or does not realize he or she is the loud talker that ruins everybody’s day.

All facilities have one thing in common: People. Facility management professionals want to have offices that are attractive to workers and an asset to their organization. Another trend in the workplace is the increased hours workers are spending in the office. Ask yourself this: Are workers spending more time at the office because they have more work to do or because they get less done due to lack of focus?