Companies Are Rethinking The Open Office, And It's About Time

02/12/2015 12:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2015
Groove

In 2012, when Ethan Giffin was designing a new office for his Baltimore startup, he wanted an open floor plan that would encourage communication among his employees. But he also wanted to build quiet places where people could work without distractions.

“People have different needs throughout their day -- times they want to collaborate and times where they just need to think by themselves,” said Giffin, 40, who is CEO of Groove, a marketing company.

So when Giffin built Groove’s new office the following year, he included a library -- complete with bookshelves, couches, plants, a fireplace and an unspoken “no-talking” rule -- as well as some smaller, more private workspaces.

Although a majority of American workers go to offices with open floor plans (70 percent of us, according to the International Facilities Management Association), companies are beginning to acknowledge that this set-up isn’t always the best for getting work done. Without walls, there can be a lot of interruptions and distractions, making even the most diligent employee less productive. As a result, some U.S. companies are diversifying their workspaces to include secluded areas where employees can work undisturbed.

“The pendulum has swung too far,” said Christine Congdon of Steelcase, a Michigan-based company that designs corporate interiors. “People have to have places to rejuvenate and absorb and process information” in order to be productive at work, she said.

There are no statistics yet for how many U.S. companies are adding private workspaces to their offices, but it’s a growing trend, according to Sonya Dufner, a director of workplace strategy at the design firm Gensler. “Every new space we’re designing has these kinds of areas,” she said.

“This isn’t just a fringe thing anymore,” said Andrew Laing of Strategy Plus, a practice group at the consulting and design firm AECOM.

Companies in the technology, financial and pharmaceutical industries are leading the charge, he said. Offices that have private work areas for employees include Bayer’s U.S. headquarters in Whippany, New Jersey, where there's about one enclosed room for every 12 workers. Facebook’s New York office offers a quiet “library” space similar to Groove’s.

The open-office trend as we know it began in the 1990s. Responding to new research saying open work environments fostered community and creativity, employers across the country began lowering cubicle walls or getting rid of them entirely. At the same time, computers were growing smaller and flatter, which allowed companies to reduce the size of their employees’ workstations. (And they’re still shrinking -- while the average worker had 225 square feet of space in 2010, by 2017 that figure will fall 33 percent, to 151 square feet, according to data from CoreNet Global, an association of real estate professionals.)

Although there is still some good evidence that knocking down physical barriers at work is a good thing -- putting workers side by side lets them interact more easily and increases their sense of community, studies show -- a growing body of research is gradually cementing the idea that open offices can also make it harder to get work done. By overstimulating us, they can make us more stressed and more distracted -- and therefore less productive.

In 2011, organizational psychologists with the University of Leeds reviewed over 100 studies on work environments and found that they increase the frequency of interruptions, reduce workers' ability to concentrate, and may even make us less motivated.

“Open offices increase communication, but not all communication is a good thing,” said Jennifer Veitch, an environmental psychologist with the National Research Council of Canada. “A lot of the time, the conversation is more about what’s on TV than about actual work.”

The most important thing, say environmental psychologists and designers who study the way physical space affects workers’ productivity and well-being, is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A newsroom may need to be open to allow for quick communication. An ad agency may do better with a series of breakout rooms where groups of workers can concentrate on specific projects.

Even within a single company, individual departments have different needs. Employees who regularly discuss sensitive information, such as those in human resources or legal departments, may need more privacy than those who work in sales.

Companies thinking about how to structure their offices should research what best fits their employees’ needs, rather than simply follow the latest trend, said Veitch, the environmental psychologist.

“Workspace should be designed as carefully as you would design the cockpit of the Dreamliner,” she said. “If you don’t give your employees the right environment, they won’t be able to do what you’re paying them to do.”

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