by Daniel Perruzzi, Jr.
As designers of high-functioning workplaces, we understand that the term “open office” elicits a lot of commentary (often negative). Many articles, blog posts, and other social media posts indicate the transition to an open office can lead to a perceived loss of privacy, increased distractions and decreased productivity, a break-down in collaboration, and even increased stress and illness.
The open office is not a new concept, and it is one that continues to gain global momentum as office designs become more progressive. But, if research indicates that organizations moving to more open work environments is here to stay, then why all the negative press? The issue stems from the definition of the “open office.”
The New(er) Open Office
The typical characteristics of an open office, the ones that everyone thinks of first, often include minimal interior walls, a few private offices, meeting spaces, and a vast expanse of open workstations. Now, consider a mindset shift and break through your own resistance and pre-conceived notions.
The high-functioning workplaces we design include multiple work settings (cubicles, benches, private pods, and yes, sometimes private offices) designed to create smaller neighborhoods that are more relatable. They include a range of choices for meeting, collaborating, and socializing. The goal for any new workplace design is to create an environment where collaboration is enhanced, where learning from others is promoted, and where the culture of a given organization can flourish. Properly designed, the “open office” can achieve all these goals.
We have learned in our practice that creating this dynamic workplace requires attention to the following principles.
Communication about the goals for the new workplace design must be communicated by management to the staff before design even begins. It sounds simple, but it is so critical, and many companies skip this step. Being clear about the goals for the new workplace helps connect staff to the effort. This builds their sense of belonging to that space, and their commitment to its success.
Collecting programming information that will comprise the new workplace should be an effort that engages the entire staff. We regularly employ a robust series of interactions including online surveys, town halls (large collections of staff designed to collect thoughts), meetings with key staff and thought leaders, and embedding designers to observe real work activities. No single design can possibly satisfy every need. The simple act of asking for input from everyone will drive up the level of satisfaction with the final design while providing a rich trove of design input.
Tune the program carefully to ensure the workplace is never just a collection of work settings and conference spaces. It should include work settings that respond to how work is performed at a given organization. Designing new meeting spaces around the typical size and cadence of meetings, and providing them with appropriate technology, goes a long way toward a successful outcome, as does providing rich collaboration opportunities.
Keep the staff informed as the workplace design evolves. Regular updates to the staff are essential to keeping them engaged. Offer updates on design as well as the schedule for delivering the new workplace.
Workers today have been found to react best to changes in their workspace when they were provided choices for where to work. The ability to work at a workstation, or in a large open area surrounded by colleagues, in a privacy pod, or in a casual place enables staff to select the work environment that best meets their needs.
Workplace designs fail for a variety of reasons, least of all because they are an open office design. The workplace is a powerful tool that can drive creativity and productivity in any organization, but like anything else, it requires thoughtful planning, communication, and design.
Daniel Perruzzi, Jr., AIA, LEED AP is a principal and senior partner at Margulies Perruzzi.