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Will an Open Office Work Environment Help Your Employees Succeed?

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In looking back on Marissa Mayer’s then (and still) controversial business transformation decision to eliminate remote employee work rights for Yahoos (the endearing label for Yahoo employees), Mayer gave great value to getting everyone together in a common work environment to build organizational culture. The company memo declaring Work From Home dead noted, “Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.” It sounds pretty simple—have a beautiful, wide-open office, get everyone in there, and watch the culture grow.

Many successful companies rightly believe that open office environments work for them, as the floor plan structurally creates opportunities to rapidly collaborate. Alexandra Gross, VP of Sales at Business Valuation Resources, notes that her company’s senior leadership agreed to make the switch to an open office floor plan “to promote cross-pollination within teams and departments,” an unarguably good goal for any successful culture. Moreover, making the switch to such an environment has a deliberate effect on the talent who will want to work there. Roughly 70 percent of US offices have adopted an open environment—in large part due to the millions of Millennials entering the workforce—but they’re not for everyone. “Some people who have been used to having their own private offices will not embrace the change and will self-select out,” Gross says.

Users chime on on their sentiment against open office environmentsEvidence pulled together in a recent Washington Post piece demonstrates that those sexy, wide-open office floor plans that are frequently used to impress new recruits on the office tour aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Readers poured in comments expressing their discontent. (My inner germaphobe was particularly scared by the mention of the quicker spread of flu, the great seasonal killer of productivity.)

If the business transformation trend is inevitably moving toward this new work environment of open offices, and not yet the Richard Branson prognostication of no offices at all, can we identify some pain points and examine some possible methods to avoid ill-conceived, one-size-fits-all solutions?

Not All Distractions Are Created Equal

A recent Fast Company article by Josh Davis shows some damning drawbacks to the open office work environment when it comes to being your most productive self. Distractions in open offices abound; as distractions increase, productivity suffers. Even Mayer had to admit after ending Work From Home that “People are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.” That admission indicates a trade-off that should be weighed carefully by all managers.

While office background noise of all types was found to be distracting, Davis highlights a meta-analysis of 242 other studies to conclusively show that “When it came to performing cognitive tasks—like staying attentive, reading and processing text, and working with numbers—performance was more affected by intermittent speech.” Unfortunately, this is the same intermittent speech you may find difficult to avoid overhearing since there’s no longer a cube wall between you and the other people you work with. For introverts, the noise factor is an even bigger problem, since “Introverts, who are generally more easily overwhelmed by stimuli, are more sensitive to noise distractions.”

If you’ve somehow read that last paragraph as license to only hire extroverts, you’re missing the point of building a diverse organizational culture. While on first impulse you may want to only work with people who work like you, in the long run it leaves the organization vulnerable to the pitfalls of monoculture and groupthink.

Woman working in an open office environment

Another Brick in the Wall

To cater to all types of employees—extroverted collaborators and introverted soloists alike—managers need to take a practical and blended approach that rebalances the work environment. While the emphasis of business transformation has been skewed toward open office spaces designed for collaboration, there’s an acute need to counterbalance it with more walled-off spaces that can offer quiet, privacy, and less distraction. For instance, a manager asking for her own private space shouldn’t have it perceived as a selfish request. Maria Konnikova points out in The New Yorker that a survey of 38,000 workers “found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.” The ripple effect of that decreased managerial productivity can have a big impact on the bottom line.

Skye Schulte, Senior Vice President at Feinstein Kean Healthcare, notes that the blended approach to workspace yields the most benefit in that it creates “private personal space where people can think, write, and have confidential client calls, but also have access to open collaborative spaces that bring people together to brainstorm, exchange ideas, and have the sort of creative serendipity and connections that occur at places of intersection.” These different kinds of tasks and goals logically call for different kinds of space arrangements that foster each.

Moreover, an increased ability to work remotely can improve satisfaction by giving workers a sense of autonomy. Certainly some days call for being in at the office for collaborative meetings with peers, as was the spirit of Mayer’s initial decision, but there should be plenty of other times to let workers control their environment better at home while boosting their productivity. Yes, working remotely has been shown to boost productivity, not kill it as many speculated.

Hopefully a more careful examination of open work environments will foster a dialogue between management, HR, and employees as to what mix of office conditions each individual employee needs to be effective, and for management to delegate those personal work preference judgment calls to their employees whenever possible.

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