Wide Open Space –
Open Offices and Productivity Don’t Have to be Enemies

Office Productivity
By Spike Team, May 20, 2019

Back in the days of grim, gray cubicles divided by little more than gray composite-panel walls, the face of the average office worker was a little…well……gray. Everyone hated office life, and the claustrophobic booths of the average office were a very sad place. It didn’t matter how many photos of the family you tacked up on your dividers, how many holiday snaps you stacked in your drawers, or how much of a sense of humor you bought into work. In the end, cubicle work dragged everyone down into its lonely pit of conformity and anonymity. Killing productivity and creativity through bad design.  

 

office productivityGary Cole in Office Space (1999)

 

Then, out of the oppressive and overwhelming grayness, someone had a bright idea. Open offices they shouted. Eureka! Only, like countless ideas before it, this bright spark wasn’t the first to think about open offices and productivity. It had been done before. A long time before in fact, when the idealistic dream of a bright and airy office space was itself a claustrophobic nightmare. You see, before cubicles were ever a thing, open offices were the norm. Think back to those 1920’s movies where rows of typists tap away on giant machines in unison. To the white-collar clerks furiously scribbling away on scores of desks. Working in an open plan office was no revolution, it was in fact, the very thing that had caused people to switch to cubicles in the first place!

 

A Quick History of Office Evolution

The first working open offices were introduced by architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright at the beginning of the 20th century. Wright essentially saw walls as absolute tyrants in his architectural democracy, creating inequality in the workplace by chopping up space supposed to be used by all. The open office was the answer, only it wasn’t long before profit-savvy employers began to see dollar signs in all that empty space. The open office quickly transitioned from Zen-like utopia to factory-styled assembly lines for the modern worker.

 

Enter Herman Miller. In 1960 Mr. Miller launched a furniture company with the idea of boosting open plan office productivity through the use of dividers. Miller’s idea was to create modular systems designed to break up all that empty space and create a better working environment for individuals. The office cubicle was born, but once again, those unscrupulous office managers saw the dollar signs stack up. Now, instead of employees crammed together in open spaces, they were squeezed into ever-shrinking cubicles.

 

The Open Office Today – The Good, the Bad, And the Ugly

So where do we stand today? Well, the current trend is to slam the open office, with many employees citing a lack of opportunities to collaborate effectively and a loss in concentration due to excessive noise. However, to a certain extent, experts are divided (possibly by those grey composite panels) as to whether the open office is a productivity killer or a productivity nirvana. But what are the pros and cons of the open office? And what makes open plan working so difficult to bear for many employees?

 

The Good The Bad The Ugly
Plenty of natural light and circulation of air. Space to move around and change seats. Good for employee wellbeing. Open spaces inevitably lead to more noise. People often throw on headphones to drown it out. “Headphone culture” leads to staff being blinkered. Zoning out at a screen and not collaborating with other staff as envisioned.
Staff are free to interact and chat. Approaching managers and colleagues doesn’t require scheduling a meeting or knocking on a door. Complete lack of privacy. Sensitive meetings or calls can be heard by everybody. Loud phone users are a particular annoyance. Open offices can lead to staff not expressing their views due to a lack of opportunity to speak candidly.
Shared lunch spaces and break rooms encourage staff to unwind together allowing stronger workplace bonds to form. Many employees now eat at their desks. This reduces their productivity and those around them by blurring the boundaries of “work time” and “break time”. Everyone knows when someone is cooking. The smell of good and bad food always permeates the office.
People are always available. If you need an instant yes or no answer you just need to catch your colleagues attention. Constant interruptions when you are focussing on difficult tasks can lead to mistakes and impact productivity. If you’re just having one of those days when you don’t want to talk to people or be sociable. It’s pretty much impossible!

 

 

 

Open Offices for Open Collaboration

Of course, much has changed since those early days of office life, and while employee engagement and wellbeing were not priorities during the 20th century, they have become important tools for companies who want to keep the best talent on their payroll. When we think about the benefits of open plan offices today, we think about Google’s playful and daring approach to collaboration or to Apple’s sleek and streamlined Apple Park. Places considered among the best places to work in the world.

 

So, is it possible that these open plan offices reduce productivity? Well. Yes and no. As companies have copied the big guns in their efforts to attract talent, smaller budgets and less creative architects have designed places that aren’t always a joy to work in. However, that doesn’t mean the end of the open office as we know it, and Spike is among the innovators attempting to bridge the gap between liberating, collaborative workspace and the need to communicate freely and privately.

 

Real-time email balances private time with conversational communications. “Headphone culture” can actually be beneficial to staff (particularly for music lovers) helping them to get into the zone on produce some seriously good work. However, employees must have access to responsive and dynamic email chat. Conversational email is your go-to tool for the open office of today. It’s instant, accessible, and its keeps everyone connected even if they are locked into their screens.

 

Additionally, the most productive office layouts balance breakout spaces with private rooms and phone booths, provide cozy corners for people to sit and chat while keeping brightly lit open areas to bring a sense of freedom. There must always be a place for employees to get some real face-to-face collaboration in their day, and where managers can meet to discuss sensitive issues.

 

Naturally, the way you plan your office should reflect the people who work in it. Software engineers are a very different breed to content editors. Graphic designers have entirely different needs to data scientists. If there’s one surefire takeaway from the evolution of the open office then it’s this. Speak to your employees about what they need for optimal productivity and NEVER, see dollar signs in place of individuals when planning your office space.

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