The backlash against open workspaces is in full swing. A quick Google search offers a glimpse of the claims against them. Open office environments “don’t work,” are “destroying the workplace” and are “bad for us.” Across the internet, the open-office naysayers point to the same authority again and again to support their claims: “Science.”
And yet, there’s something that these bloggers — and most scientific studies — are missing.
Every study forces each company to fit into one black-and-white category or another. For some studies, an office is “open” or it isn’t, so where do they draw the line? Even those that consider multiple types of environments need to fit businesses into neat buckets: “open,” high cubicles, low cubicles, private offices, etc. By design, research studies are forced to establish well-defined conditions that eliminate ambiguity, flexibility or shades of grey.
And that’s where the gap exists: Research pointing to the downsides of open workspaces refuses to recognize flexibility in work environments. It has proven that open workspaces don’t work for every person all the time. That’s not a surprising claim: Introverts fare worse in them, as do older employees and those in certain professions. Even for an individual, their mood and work can change day-by-day; so too will their ideal work environment.
So, the key to proving “science” wrong about open office spaces is to provide your employees the very flexibility that experiments can’t test. A closer look shows, in fact, that this flexibility is the key to promoting productivity in the workplace.
Why? Because it gives your employees a way to “opt out” of the open workspace on days where it just isn’t their cup of tea.
One way to do this is to design your office in a way that incorporates multiple floor plans and allows your employees to escape from an open environment for heads-down work or private conversations. Create and enforce a “quiet room,” make sure you have enough private meeting spaces, or maybe even set up a quad of cubicles somewhere in your office. Many major companies — like SAP, AirBnB and Cisco — have designed their offices around this model of flexibility.
The other method is to allow employees to telecommute, giving them another way to escape distractions at the office, so as to maintain productivity. In fact, one poll found that the most engaged employees were those that spent at least 20% of their time telecommuting.
As a result, if you have an open office environment or are thinking about transitioning to one, the current body of research doesn’t mean that you should scrap your plans and prop up a farm of cubicles. Instead, it demands that you spend time thinking about your employees and what type of atmosphere they will work best in. And flexibility is the key. That way, you can allow your employees to work in an open environment when they could benefit from others’ input and escape it when they really need to concentrate.
Otherwise, you’ll end up with at least one introvert paralyzed in a sea of office chatter or one extrovert lost among four walls of solitude.
Interested in learning more? Read on to find out how I’ve personally managed my transition to an open work environment.