Open Office Productivity: A Broken Promise - Bonfyre

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In the last two decades, a wave of organizations implemented new open floor plans on faith of a promise. Open office productivity, collaboration, and innovation would be far greater than it was in their old floor plans.

Today, many of these organizations regret the decision. They feel they were sold a false bill of goods when the purported benefits failed to materialize. What happened?

Open floor plans are not particularly new. They were first conceived by a German team in the ‘50s who was looking to open up communication in the workspace. But in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, the open floor plan came in vogue thanks, in part, to the Silicon Valley startup boom.

Many of the companies thriving in the tech innovation hub during this period of time prominently displayed their stylish open workspaces as a key factor in their success. These alluring and often unconventional floor plans were designed with deliberate intent to provoke greater collaboration and knowledge transfer between team members.

Thanks to fewer visual and auditory obstructions in the space, open office productivity took on a new form in dynamic employee “collisions.” Collisions are spontaneous interactions between employees spanning all roles and departments that, in theory, result in new product and process innovations.

It didn’t take much for people to put two and two together. If some of the most innovative and successful organizations in the nation all had stylish floor plans, surely this new open office productivity must be working as intended. The open office space quickly became visual shorthand for a modern company. A company that prioritized collaboration and teamwork above all else. It helped they looked a lot nicer than cubicles too.

To the delight of many, open floor plans are also an effective cost-cutting measure. Open work environments mean less personal space allocated to each individual employee. The space is supposed to be shared, after all. In the past nine years, the widespread shift to open floor plans contributed to a 33% drop in average square footage per worker in North America. For organizations, that means smaller work facilities and lower rent and building maintenance costs.

When expectations meet reality for open office productivity

At least at first, this transition seemed like it was going to be a win-win. With new open floor plans, employees were going to have more engaging, collaborative work experiences. Open office productivity and innovation would surely rise. Employers would reap the rewards of these new creative collisions, and enjoy the added cost-savings of the open environment. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot.

Today, it’s estimated that 70% of U.S. offices have low or no partitions. At many of these organizations, those spontaneous collisions simply aren’t happening. If they are, odds are the workspace has little to do with it.

Each year the research dispelling the myth of open office productivity grows. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence pointing to the opposite conclusion, that the promise of the open floor plan was hollow from the start. In office environments where partitions between workspaces are low or nonexistent, employees find themselves distracted by the increased noise level, unable to focus on their tasks and too overwhelmed to collaborate with peers.

One prominent recent example comes from Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban. Together, the pair studied two Fortune 500 companies as they made the transition to open floor plans. The intention behind the shift was, you guessed it, to provoke new opportunities for employee collaboration and innovation. The researchers aimed to find out if those outcomes would happen by measuring data from tools like employees’ electronic badges, microphones, email, and chat programs.

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Their findings show that open office plans do not produce those spontaneous, collaborative interactions. After the open floor plan was implemented, employees spent 73% less time interacting with colleagues face-to-face. To supplement their communication needs, they instead reverted to using digital tools to get the information they needed. In that same time period, employees’ email use increased 67% and use of instant messenger tools rose by 75%.

“What it was doing was creating not a more face-to-face environment, but a more digital environment,” Bernstein said. “That’s ironic because that’s not what people intend to try to do when creating open office spaces.”

What’s more, plenty of research shows employee performance declines in offices with open floor plans. A 2011 study by psychologist Matthew Davis, for example, showed open work environments were damaging to employees’ creativity, attention spans, and ultimately their productivity. Open office productivity is limited by increased sickness and absences too. Employees who work in open-plan offices with six or more occupants take 62% more sick days than those who work in standard enclosures.

Perhaps the only untarnished benefit to open floor plans is its cost-savings. But even then, there’s an argument to be made that the lost employee output and collaboration between teams actually results in a net loss for the company.

Related: 5 Ways Office Design Impacts Employee Engagement Strategies

Lacking open office productivity? Here are some alternate paths.

To backpedal only slightly, there is a genuine utility to shared spaces where employees can communicate and collaborate. Problems like a dearth of open office productivity arise when that type of space becomes uniform, employees’ only option for engaging with their work and each other.

All manner of research and conventional wisdom points to flexibility as the emergent office design principle of the modern era. Today’s workforce is more diverse than it’s ever been in the past. And with a diverse group of people comes a diverse set of work preferences. As we’ve previously written, flexible work arrangements give more diverse groups of people the ability to create work environments and experiences right for them.

What does that look like? For starters, it means quiet spaces for tasks that require deep focus, shared spaces for when work demands collaboration, and unmitigated freedom to move between both throughout the day.

One example of these spaces is the “Pixar Hub.” Yes, that Pixar. This floor plan was actually developed by Steve Jobs during his tenure as CEO of the organization. Think of the Pixar Hub as an inversion of the open office space. The floor plan is set up as a large shared space with many smaller offices in its orbit.

The catch is that the shared space is not where employees are expected to get their individual tasks done–that’s what the offices are for. As Inc contributor Geoffrey James explains, the common area is reserved for recreational purposes. It’s a space where employees can go to relax, meet, and, if the mood strikes them, have the spontaneous collaborations that open floor plans promise.

But unless you’re building a floor plan from scratch, the resources are probably not there for a total office makeover (though, there’s always the budget option). Thankfully, Pixar Hubs are far from the only way companies can pursue flexible work arrangements.

Remote work is, of course, a viable flexible work option in and of itself. Need to complete a task that requires high concentration? Stay home and get your job done in a space you can control. Digital communication tools now make it easier than ever for employees to have essential work interactions from nearly anywhere. To be frank, there are fewer and fewer reasons why work even needs to occur at the office at all.

Related: The Biggest Challenge of Remote Employee Engagement

But we’ve already written plenty about remote work. What we’re interested in discussing here is how remote work changes the company’s physical working environment. Today, 43% of the U.S. workforce works remotely at least some of the time. That share has been trending upward over the past decade, and it’s only expected to increase with time. Organizations keen on adopting remote work cultures have freed up space and can now experiment with how employees engage in their floor plans.

For example, in late 2014, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts shared with The Atlantic how it completely removed assigned seating arrangements from its office space. About a fifth of the company’s workforce had transitioned to working remote full time, but these employees still needed to use the company office on occasion.

Rather than leave rows of desks empty until employees need them, the company decided to consolidate its office space and move to a flexible seating arrangement system. This change meant employees at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts no longer had permanent desk assignments. When remote staff decide they need to operate from home base, they’re given a laptop and “rolling locker” to store personal effects, and have the freedom to work at any available deskspace they choose. Internal surveys at the company showed that employees felt less distracted and more productive as a result of this new arrangement.

Today this freeform seating arrangement goes by a few names: “hot desking” is one, activity-based work is another. Since it’s a relatively recent practice, data on its effectiveness is limited but early research shows mixed outcomes. Some employees enjoy having the freedom to pick and choose their work environment and the interactions that come with it. Others find the freeform arrangement makes it difficult to establish trust and friendships with their coworkers.

What is clear, however, is that one-size-fits-all office space arrangements just don’t cut it for today’s workforce. The ideal form of open office productivity is an admirable goal to pursue, but it’s just that, an idealized concept that rarely exists in practice. If organizations are truly invested in building workspaces that enable employees to do their very best work, they’d be wise to consult the perspectives of the people who actually have to use them.

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