Making an Open Office Workspace Work

Mention open office workspaces and you’re bound to get lots of opinions. Maybe you read the Harvard research study published earlier this year that quantitatively denies that open office workspaces increase collaboration. Maybe you’ve worked in an open office space and thought it was just plain a-w-k-w-a-r-d. Either way, open office workspaces have gotten a bad rap.

We have an open office here at Element. While we admit it has its challenges, we’ve also found ways to make it work. So many companies utilize open office floor plans, so they can’t be all bad, right? Open floor plans are inexpensive, efficient, and can, under the right circumstances, boost employee interaction and collaboration.

But first, the bad news. That study I mentioned earlier found that when two Fortune 500 companies transitioned to an “open, transparent, and boundaryless” environment, their face-to-face interactions decreased by 70 percent while electronic communications, specifically email and instant messaging, increased by 20–50 percent, depending on the employee’s role. That certainly sounds frightening for collaboration.

For those of us with open office workspaces, the important thing to note is “open, transparent, and boundaryless.” Imagine if your home were open, transparent, and boundaryless. Even the people who love and know you best would be begging your neighbor for five minutes in their hall closet. Boundaries are important, even in open offices. These boundaries can be physical, but they can also be “invisible,” which we’ll discuss a little more.

Every open space needs a closed space.

And the bathroom doesn’t count. Your employees need a designated private area that they can reserve for meetings or go to in order to take phone calls or really focus on a project. Here at Element, we have a conference room that is completely separate from our offices that we use just for those types of things. We also respect each other’s space while using it, instead of allowing it to become yet another completely open work environment.

You can get as creative as you’d like with your private spaces. BarkBox has doggie treehouses, which are really more like cubicles for their employees. Basecamp has actual phone booths where employees can make/take private calls or just be alone. LinkedIn’s NYC office has work pods. Take a look at your space and start exploring some options!

The boundaries—physical and invisible.

Outside private spaces, you can also establish boundaries within your open space. The strategic placement of desks is a simple way to create boundaries. Allow space between desks so that no one feels like they’re being watched. Desk partitions are also a great way to create boundaries. With desk partitions, employees can still see and interact with one another, but the partitions also add a little extra privacy without making any permanent alterations to your floor plan.

Setting expectations is also a way of setting boundaries. What is your open office culture? Do people wear headphones? Is it okay to step outside to take a call? Do people ever eat lunch at their desk? What is everyone’s preferred method of communication? These types of boundaries are often “invisible,” but they play a big part in the success of your open office.

I previously worked in an open office space that had a “quiet hour” every morning. From 8 to 9 a.m. no one spoke to another, in person or electronically. It was a designated time to catch up on emails, regroup from the previous day, and execute a plan for the day’s tasks.

Talk to your employees and find out what kind of boundaries they would find helpful. Give them an opportunity to ask questions about the open office culture so that everyone is on the same page about what to expect.

Be respectful of others.

In the end, simply respecting others and their space goes a long way. Sharing an open office is kind of like having roommates. You chat sometimes, go out together occasionally, and (hopefully) enjoy each other’s company. Despite sharing a living space, you still enjoy your alone time and appreciate living with someone who cares about your wants and needs. Just like living with roommates, being considerate and respectful of other people’s work styles and personalities is the key to making it work. I really like how Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, explains how they treat their open office. He says, “Embrace Library Rules. Open offices work all around the world every day. They’re called libraries! And the more you treat your office as a library of work — rather than a chaotic kitchen of work — the better an open floor plan is going to work. Making an open floor plan work is a cultural decision.”

It’s a cultural decision. Just as much as the people, your environment is your culture. So, make it your own, and embrace it! Amazing companies with extremely talented employees are successfully utilizing open office workspaces all over the country, so why not you? Despite the negative publicity, you can make it work with a few adjustments. Make space, set boundaries, and be kind. Happy working!

Berstein, E. S., & Turban, S. (2018). The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions B, 373(1573). doi: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0239

By Sidney Gilliam

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