The Regret of Open Offices, and How to Fix It

There has been a vocal backlash against open office environments lately. Over the years, about 70% of US offices have embraced an open floor plan, and during that time a mounting body of evidence has shown that these work environments reduce productivity by as much as 15%. Not only that, research shows that open workspaces cause employees to have a much harder time concentrating and makes them twice as likely to get sick than with traditional enclosed workspaces.

Key reasoning behind having no walls, no doors, and shared workspaces is the noble desire of improving communication, increasing collaboration, and reducing a sense of hierarchy. The problem is that the open office concept is not just a space issue, but holistically changes the way people work and can impact alignment. Only addressing the office layout as a matter of space – and not simultaneously taking the people, technology, processes, and other company attributes into consideration –  can lead to a ton of problems.

We consulted for a large energy company who had an open workspace with rows and rows desks. Everyone sat at one of these tables to do their job regardless of their position, including the leadership team. During one of our meetings, a Vice President complained that he hated the noise, lack of privacy and constant interruptions. Though the company had created this open layout with good intentions, it became apparent very quickly that giving everyone a one-size-fits-all space without considering the specific needs of each employee and their work-style, reduced productivity and employee satisfaction.

More important than adopting an open workspace is diving deeper to examine what the department or organization needs to achieve optimization and success. We lead our clients through this journey which we call Radical Alignment. It involves a unique process to identify misalignment through needs analysis of people, space and technology to help chart a path to make the Ideal State a reality.

Adopting an open office concept is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Using Radical Alignment, however, will force you to examine the real end goal and then show you all of the necessary steps to get there. For instance, if my Ideal State is to break down hierarchy in my company, I need to align the processes, technology, organizational charts and compensation plans to the reach a fair and equitable work environment. Knocking down private offices is not going to eliminate hierarchy by itself.

If the goal is to stimulate staff collaboration, Radical Alignment will assist in defining what collaboration means in its deepest sense. To truly achieve collaboration, we need to examine a company’s structure. If all decision-making is put on one person it does not promote the goal of collaboration. In addition, if we want to encourage a cooperative environment but we don’t include the members of the team that are outside the four walls of the building such as: vendors, project partners and even customers — we cannot truly achieve the cohesion desired. Clearly an open floor plan is not enough – we also need to work on processes to connect all team members together.

At Improve Group, we offer the supporting products and staff to create a functional workspace but we go beyond just creating new walls, shelving and layouts. We work with our clients to understand their needs and design a professional environment that allows staff to perform at optimum level. This includes not only the structural design but technology solutions to support success. For instance, one effective and inexpensive technology solution that can be used to optimize an open workspace environment is noise canceling headphones.

You can find many more useful tools and suggestions on our website. Get started today by downloading our Radical Alignment Matrix, a tool to help you identify misalignments and find ways to achieve better collaboration, productivity and help you create the work environment of your dreams!

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