Is it Time to Rethink the Wisdom of the Open Workspace?

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Business Agility in Times of Crisis

Has your company been making the shift from traditional offices and cubicles to an “open workspace” with employees co-located in neighborhoods or open rooms without physical barriers?  Many companies have been moving this direction over the past few years. Large companies have been renovating office buildings with open workspace designs. Smaller companies are increasingly leveraging contract workspace providers like WeWork that leverage open workspace concepts in their layout. Recent impacts of COVID-19 are exposing a weakness in this work model. This is leading many companies to rethink the wisdom of open workspaces for their employees. 

Open Workspace

Why Companies Have Been Moving Towards the Open Workspace

The idea of open workspace layouts was a good one.  “What if you break down all the walls and give employees a fun, open environment conducive to collaboration?  Would it lead to greater innovation and productivity? What would it do for team culture?” Startup companies in the tech industry have been leveraging open workspace concepts for a long time.  Some of the most successful modern tech giants started as a few people working out of someone’s garage or college dormitory – open workspaces. When a company or team is small, lacking resources for traditional office space, you make do with what you have. Shared space leads to a shared identity and shared ideas – and that’s a good thing for startups.  

cost savingsWhat happens when a team or company grows?  Can the open workspace concept still work? If you ask the HR and facilities leaders of many tech companies, they will tell you yes.  They will give you anecdotal evidence of breakthrough innovation and increased productivity. The top business justification for moving to open concept workspace are:

  1. Cost savings – cubes and offices are expensive to furnish and are often under-utilized. Open workspaces save money in the facilities budget.
  2. Density – in open workspaces, you have less furniture and can put as much as 30% more people in the same square footage of office space.
  3. Collaboration/team dynamics – open workspace is meant to encourage the ongoing sharing of ideas that can lead to breakthrough innovations. It is a way of bringing the “startup” mentality into larger organizations.

Challenges of Open Workspace in Normal Times

Those benefits seem all well and good.  Who wouldn’t want lower costs, higher efficiency, and more collaboration?  Perhaps you should talk to employees who are asked to work in this environment.  Some of their top complaints about open workspace layouts are:

  1. Noise – whether you are trying to focus on your work, participate in an online meeting, or just have a conversation, open workspaces are noisy environments.  
  2. Lack of personal space – The personal space that an office or cube provides, gives employees a sense of control over their work environment.  This, in turn, lowers stress and enables greater focus on work tasks. Open workspaces are shared spaces – there is no place to retreat to collect thoughts, release frustrations, and “get in the zone” for peak productivity.
  3. Privacy – Open workspaces afford little privacy. HR-related issues can be exposed to the entire team. Co-workers overhear personal calls. Sensitive business data is viewable by passers-by.
  4. Parking – Most office buildings were designed for office/cube layouts, and their parking lots were sized accordingly.  Open workspaces and increased density lead to parking challenges. Ok, so some companies want you to ride a bike or take public transit, but Americans love their cars, it’s just the reality.

If you walk into an open workspace and observe what you see, some other challenges become apparent

  • Nearly everyone is wearing (noise-canceling) headphones. This negates some of the benefits of the open layout but is necessary to mitigate the noise issues.
  • People have “staked their claim” to a desk or portion of the workspace with personal items, decorations, re-arranging furniture, etc., despite the intention that space is communal.
  • Someone is always coughing or sneezing and then touching something.  People can be gross, and no matter how many signs you post or sanitizing stations you install, there are no physical barriers to keep people’s germs contained in an open workspace.

Even in “normal” times, open workspaces are not generating the grand results that many leaders had hoped for. Yes, there are some cost savings and greater space utilization.  Yes, some teams embrace the communal culture and develop breakthrough ideas and innovations. Still, employee morale issues often offset much of the potential benefits and mitigation steps that are being taken by individuals to survive and be productive in the work environment.

Open workspace and COVID-19

The WHO and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have both recommended “social distancing” as a critical component in the strategy for controlling the spread of the coronavirus and avoiding transmission in the community.  How can you maintain a safe social distance (of at least 6 feet) when you work in an open workspace? Then reflect on that observation about people coughing, sneezing, and generally being gross. Most companies that have adopted open workspace layouts are now faced with the prospect of closing facilities temporarily and instructing employees to work from home (if that is possible in their business environment).  

How long will this COVID-19 situation last?  That is unclear. Will this happen again? Probably.  The frequency of large-scale viral infections has increased significantly over the past 100 years, with the increase in global travel.  Traditional office layouts won’t protect your employees from the spread of germs and diseases in the workplace – but open workspace layouts are increasing both your company’s risk and leading to more significant impacts when situations like this happen.  This is just one of the ways coronavirus is reshaping the way companies think about work

Rethinking workspace layout

Rethinking Workspace Layout

Like all business situations, there is never a universally right answer when it comes to what workspace layout is best for all companies (or even all teams within a company).  The current situation should be taken as a wake-up call to think about, and talk about, what options are available and what makes sense in your situation. If you have a small product development team where breakthrough collaboration is imperative to business success, open workspace layouts may still be the right choice for you.  If you have functions where individual employee productivity is critical, perhaps its time to reconsider whether traditional offices or cubes might be a better choice. If you have a business function (or company) where a team member can be productive working remotely, perhaps you should consider doing away with the physical office space entirely.  Consider these 5 reasons why companies should embrace a digital workforce.

If it is essential for your business operations that your people be physically present in the office, you need to pay attention to the lessons learned from COVID-19 and look for ways to keep your staff safe and healthy. That may require you to rethink the wisdom of the open workspace.

Summary:

Is it Time to Rethink the Wisdom of the Open Workspace?

Has your company been making the shift from traditional offices and cubicles to an “open workspace” with employees co-located in neighborhoods or open rooms without physical barriers? Many companies have been moving this direction over the past few years. Large companies have been renovating office buildings with open workspace designs. Smaller companies are increasingly leveraging contract workspace providers like WeWork that leverage open workspace concepts in their layout. Recent impacts of COVID-19 are exposing a weakness in this work model. This is leading many companies to rethink the wisdom of open workspaces for their employees.

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William Goddard

William Goddard is the founder and Chief Motivator at IT Chronicles. His passion for anything remotely associated with IT and the value it delivers to the business through people and technology is almost like a sickness. He gets it! And wants the world to understand the value of being a technology focused business in a technological world.
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