The Open Office: What’s Working And What’s Not?

This workplace design approach continues to appeal to many organizations. A recent survey examines motivations and results.

By Kristen Reed and Matthew Stegmeier
From the February 2017 Issue

The term “open office” is a lightning rod for those in the corporate world. With articles, blog posts, and other commentary coming out seemingly every week (many of them negative), there is no shortage of opinion about this office design. As a facility executive, it is a topic that can’t be ignored; as the open plan becomes more mainstream, it’s likely that someone from your organization knows someone who has had a negative experience in this type of work environment. Due to the pervasiveness of this design, employees may just assume their office will be next. Regardless of actual plans for future workplace endeavors, it’s helpful to have a solid grasp on the concept. So what do facilities professionals need to know?

open office

While the open office is not a new concept, it is one that continues to gain global momentum as office designs become more progressive. Characteristics of an open office often include minimal interior walls, a benching system or cubicles with low walls, fewer private offices, and a variety of workspace settings and meeting rooms from which employees may choose. In many cases, workplace designs include unassigned seating. This is a significant change when compared to the traditional office layout in which some companies are still working, and facility management professionals are facing multiple challenges when planning for the shift.

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Shown above, an open office redesign of the Mars Drinks global headquarters in West Chester, PA focused on employee engagement, collaboration, well-being, and productivity for all generations and emerging workstyles. (Photos: courtesy of Mars Drinks)

What are the top business drivers for organizations that are opting for the open plan? Real estate optimization is often at the top of the list. Both rapid growth and permanent headcount reductions result in a workplace no longer being utilized as intended by its original design. Increased rent costs may bring about an epiphany that an open plan allows for organizations to take a smaller floor plan for the same number of people, particularly when combined with a workplace strategy that incorporates unassigned seating and on- and off-site employee mobility.

However, the reason for change is not always financial. Organizations are looking for ways to attract and retain talent, especially the next generation of employees who have been conditioned for collaboration through a college experience that increasingly has students studying in non-traditional work environments and being immersed in group projects. Business leaders are beginning to understand the competitive advantage created by offering a compelling workplace experience. New employees not only want the perfect job, they want an innovative office space that encourages creativity while offering choice and control of where they work.

Another goal of open offices is to improve interdepartmental communication and teamwork. When cubicle walls come down and employees are surrounded by inspiring spaces, innovation is more likely to emerge. Employees engage with one another more often, and spontaneous conversations occur—often sparking new ideas.

Changing Work Habits Impacting Workplace Design

While there are numerous benefits to an open plan, there are also many well-documented problems that can arise when employees are transitioned to an open environment with little change management and proper design foresight—a perceived loss of privacy, increased distractions, and even heightened exposure to germs, to name a few. With so many divergent voices on the topic, Stegmeier Consulting Group (SCG), a U.S. based workplace consultancy, sought to take a non-sensationalized approach to documenting overall business sentiments on the emergence of open work environments. The firm’s “State of the Open Office Research Study” examined attitudes and concerns of nearly 500 global workplace professionals as it relates to working in more progressive office layouts. With respondents on six continents, representing organizations with a collective workforce of over 5.5 million employees, the recently published study results also explored trends for current and likely future designs for office environments.

A key takeaway from the research findings is that the trend of organizations moving to more open work environments is here to stay. The majority of respondents indicated that their organization’s most recently completed or next planned office transformation will feature some level of open plan design. Responses showed that offices featuring unassigned workspace and assigned open workspace are trending upward, while future offices are less likely to contain assigned cubicles and private offices, compared to their current popularity.

Individual contributors (those with no direct reports) are predictably the segment most likely to work in a more progressive work layout, with over 75% of respondents indicating these employees will be in an unassigned workspace or assigned open space in the future. Moving forward, mid-level managers are expected to be 50% less likely to have an assigned private office. Something unthinkable even a few years ago is becoming a reality—senior leaders and executives giving up private offices; over 42% of organizations expect to place senior leaders in some form of a non-traditional workspace. Increasingly, SCG is witnessing clients strategically position executives in the open to help transform the corporate culture and set expectations of how the workplace should be used by all employees.

Of particular interest to facilities executives should be the respondents’ top concern for working in a more open office environment. In the SCG survey, leading concerns about open office plans were: audible distractions (33%); lack of audible privacy (25%); and uninvited interruptions (19%). Other concerns surveyed were: lack of visual privacy (8%); visual distractions (6%); and germs/cleanliness (1%).

Change Management For Open Office Planning

When transitioning a workforce to the open plan, the concerns of employees need to be taken into account. In addition to the aforementioned issues, there may be organization-specific or department-specific concerns that affect a workforce. SCG recommends engaging employees very early on during a workplace transformation by conducting either a change readiness survey or facilitating focus group sessions.

These efforts allow employees to express their opinions and enable the project team to understand the pulse of the workforce. The organization can then be proactive in allaying concerns and communicating change outward instead of scrambling to respond to rumors, or even worse, burying their head in the sand.

Another recommended change management tactic is to develop a network of employees to represent the “voice” of their peers. Holding regularly scheduled meetings with this employee engagement group is an opportunity for important messages to ripple through the workforce and for the project team to be able to keep an ear to the ground for any additional rumors, concerns, or ideas. It is, however, critical to manage expectations of this group—a “voice” does not necessarily equal a “vote.”

Before the actual transition takes place, this same group can help develop workplace etiquette guidelines. A published set of protocols will ensure that everyone has a clear understanding of the expectations once they move into the new workspace. Importantly, protocols that are co-developed by an employee group greatly increase the likelihood of the workforce self-policing instead of running to leadership when infractions occur.

During any type of workplace transformation, change management activities can ease the transition for employees, but such efforts become even more critical when moving to more non-traditional work environments. Whether or not an organization is contemplating a change in office styles, it is important for facilities professionals to have a grasp on open offices, as it is a trend that will not disappear anytime soon.

open officeReed is a consultant with Stegmeier Consulting Group, a globally recognized leader in workplace change management. She has contributed to the success of diverse client workplace transformation initiatives.

open officeStegmeier is a senior consultant with Stegmeier Consulting Group, and has led large-scale and complex change initiatives for the firm’s clients. His involvement in workplace transformations spans from the development or refinement of workplace strategies to the implementation of change management plans. The “State of the Open Office Research Study” contains other practical tips for facility executives embarking on a workplace transformation and is available for download.

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  1. An insightful read. What businesses also need to understand is that following a trend might seem to be the right way to go, but what should really determine the choice of office design should be the type of work that is taking place in the said premises. While an open office layout works well for certain types of businesses, others might need more privacy. Also, as you rightly said, the workforce needs to be transitioned so that they can make best use of the open office layout.

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