How to make open-plan offices more productive

Open offices aim to spur collaboration and innovation but often have exactly the opposite effect. Here’s how to harness their lost promise of productivity.

How to make open-plan offices more productive
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IT organizations have embraced open office plans to drive cost savings and flexibility and to increase collaboration and productivity. But some IT employees say open office plans are having exactly the opposite effect.

“Honestly, it’s a nightmare, and I hate it,” says one senior system engineer with a global publishing company who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s chaotic. It’s frustrating. I can’t get away to get done what I need to; I either end up working very late to take advantage of when everyone else goes home, or I work from home.”

It’s a common complaint. According to a recent survey from Future Workplace and unified communications company Poly, the No. 1 problem workers have with open office plans is the noise — and resulting distractions — caused by coworkers, says Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace.

Nearly all (99 percent) of the more than 5,000 employees surveyed report they get distracted while working at their personal workspace; 51 percent say the distractions make it difficult to listen to or be heard while on calls and 48 percent say their ability to focus is negatively impacted. Seventy-six percent of respondents blame their coworkers — whether that person is talking loudly on the phone or just having a conversation nearby.

Not surprisingly, millennials and Gen Z are more tolerant of these distractions than their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts. According to the survey, the younger workers are, the more they prefer an open workplace floor plan, with more Gen Z (55%) and Millennials (56%) in favor of open offices compared to Gen X (47%) and Baby Boomers (38%).

“Millennials and Gen Z, being digital natives, are used to this kind of environment, and they’ve figured out ways to block the noise and mitigate the distractions,” says Meister. But “with four generations now in the workplace together, IT organizations have to figure out how to address the needs of all of these groups.”

The rise of ‘workaround’ office culture

Meghan Kelly, a UX specialist with Elsevier in Philadelphia, likes the spontaneity and convivial atmosphere of an open office, and believes it helps improve morale and loyalty. “I’m a really social person, so I love having an open office. I think it’s much easier to just have conversations with coworkers to make sure you’re on the same page or if you have a simple follow-up question,” Kelly says. “I think it’s great for building camaraderie, too. It makes me feel more invested in my company because it helps me feel like part of a community.”

That may be true for some, but open office plans have failed to deliver on the promises of increased productivity and spontaneous collaboration, says Tom A., a technical consultant who wished to remain anonymous.

He says the lack of physical boundaries has forced workers to rely more heavily on technology instead of face-to-face conversations. Many office workers use technology to mitigate distractions and maintain their productivity; noise-canceling headphones, for example, and increased use of collaboration apps such as Slack and chat and messaging technology, he says.

This increased reliance on technology is in direct conflict with the stated purpose of open-office plans, and this shift also forces workers to devote more time to screening messages. Workers have had to create their own etiquette for personal interaction and communication that ends up hindering collaboration rather than enabling it. In open offices, Tom A. says, workers are less willing to interrupt their coworkers and become yet another distraction, so they go through an escalating process of reaching out.

“There’s inherent time loss in any of these communication technologies,” Tom A. says. “First, you ping people to see if they’re available. Then, you either have to go back and forth via that technology, or you assess whether there’s the need for a face-to-face. Even if you’re asking someone a simple question, and they’re not immediately available to answer it, that’s a time loss. People in the office have this unofficial ‘tier’ system of communication now, they start with a lower tier, like Slack; then if necessary that’s escalated to email, and then to face-to-face.”

In that regard, Tom A. adds, the “synergy” and spontaneous collaboration organizations have touted in their moves to open-office plans has “failed horrifically.”

Productivity, collaboration, morale and belonging in an open office situation are also largely determined by chance, or by culture — either of the organization at large or in individual teams, says Kelly.

“We definitely have people who are way too loud, or who have naturally loud voices that carry. I think it depends on the individual team; it also depends on who you sit next to. I sat next one of my good friends in the office and we had a blast, but there also was someone near me who’d ask questions and interrupt me consistently. That was frustrating for sure — I started to work in meeting rooms when I really needed to get things done,” she says.

These “workarounds” are an increasingly common side effect of open office plans, says Meister. According to the survey results, a little over 70 percent of respondents say they would go into the office more if they had greater choice over where they did their work.

“One of the most interesting points from the research is the extent to which people are doing these workarounds to ensure they can be productive if it’s noisy, or if they know they’ll be distracted,” she says. “You’re told that this will encourage more collaboration and spur-of-the-moment meetings and innovation, but the reality is completely the opposite. Despite all the money companies have spent to redesign and remodel their office space, people are saying it’s costing them an hour of productive time each day, and 73 percent say they avoid going into the office altogether.”

Want worse? Here comes ‘hot desking’

Sometimes, this is a deliberate move by organizations to increase cost efficiencies and reduce physical office overhead, says Meister. This is related to the trend of, “hot desking” or “hoteling,” where workers don’t have assigned seating and office space is allocated on a “first come, first served” basis.

Hot-desking/hoteling is even more controversial, says Meister. While hot-desking may make sense for some occupations — analysts, consultants, gig economy and contract workers, for example — shrinking the amount of office space available leads to more stress and anxiety for full-time employees.

“Hot-desking is definitely on the rise in areas where real estate is expensive,” she says. “But the bottom line is it exacerbates the issues people already have with open office plans, because it’s different every day of the week. You don’t know if you’re going to even have a desk that day; you don’t know who you’ll sit beside. Will they be distracting? Will it be that person you don’t get along with? Are you going to get the desk that has the broken monitor? Be stuck next to that buzzing florescent light that facilities hasn’t fixed yet?” she says.

The hot-desking trend is a natural offshoot of the increasing temporary nature of work, especially IT work, nowadays, as well as the increase in gig economy opportunities, says Tom A. And that’s not necessarily a good thing, especially as organizations simultaneously try to emphasize a good employee experience.

“I would go so far as to say it’s inhumane, in the most literal sense of the word,” he says. “From childhood — even in college — we were assigned seats. That regularity and routine is something people depend on, and it’s being thrown out the window. Hot desking literally means there’s not enough seats to go around, so there’s inherent anxiety in the fact that you don’t even have the ability to decorate, to have the same coffee cup, the same monitor layout, all the things that make you even the slightest bit more comfortable at work,” he says. “Companies are reducing people to interchangeable commodities that they can plug in as needed. That’s not helping to develop a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, community, engagement.”

How to make open-plan offices productive

What can organizations do to make open office plans work for everyone? It starts with clear communication from the top, says Alan Stukalsky, chief digital officer at Randstad USA, who’s managed his organization’s transition to open offices.

First, understand that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan, regardless of what real-estate professionals would have you believe, he says. “In real estate terms, they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, if you have 25 percent of your people who aren’t in the office every day, and you need to reduce your office space by a certain percent, then we can cut out the space and you’ll lower your costs.’ That’s not a good way to approach it, because you’re forcing this on everyone. We based these layouts on a team-by-team basis, and that has made all the difference,” he says.

Each team sets the rules and expectations for themselves, and decides what will make them most comfortable and best able to do their jobs, Stukalsky says. That has increased overall buy-in as well as morale and engagement.

“This even ties into our dress code — because we’re in an open office and everyone’s super visible, we decided on a ‘Dress for Your Day’ policy that’s based on who you’re meeting with and who you’ll be interacting with. If you’re going to be on calls all day, you don’t need to wear a suit. If you’re meeting with clients, then you need to dress for the occasion. So, that makes people a lot more comfortable,” he says.

While Stukalsky says that may seem like a no-brainer, it eliminated people’s anxiety that they needed to dress more formally to keep up appearances. “We learned that employees were dressing more professionally because they felt they had to — because everyone else was doing it. We made the expectations clear — and that put employees at ease, and more comfortable,” he says.

Be open to flexibility

In addition to empowering team input, choice is key. To accommodate the wide variety of working styles and shifting working and collaboration needs, open offices should offer multiple choices of workspaces, says Amy Barzdukas, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Poly. Huddle rooms, telephone booths, open gathering spaces, and flexible closed spaces are all as important to a successful open office plan as open workspaces are.

“Having that choice is critical to the employee experience — your real estate isn’t your No. 1 expense, your employees are. Making this shift impacts your employee experience, and that EX means the difference between keeping and losing talent,” she says. “Offering that choice and having a variety of spaces means that if workers need to get away from the noise, they can. If they love to be in the middle of things, they can.”

That means rethinking traditional spaces such as conference rooms, says Stukalsky. When Randstad remodeled its working spaces, its teams discovered they no longer needed as many medium-size conference rooms.

“Now we need way more small one- and two-person rooms, maybe one big conference room and fewer midsized conference spaces. Because open plans have removed offices for direct managers, we’re seeing more manager-employee closed-door meetings that better utilize those smaller rooms,” he says.

Flexible and remote work arrangements should also be available, says Barzdukas, especially if an open plan is rife with distractions. While that separation isn’t always the best for cohesion and for facilitating office culture, it’s important for fostering engagement and trust that employees can do what they need to do to be productive.

“We’ve learned, too, that communication is essential regarding when you work remote versus when you’re in the office are really important,” says Stukalsky. “If you know you’re going to be working from home, update your email with an ‘out of office’ message and  a sign on your desk with your contact information so people know what to expect. We wanted to remove all unnecessary barriers to communication.”

Establishing new cultural norms in an open-office world

To make open-plan offices truly productive, organizations must foster new modes of interaction, whether that is a change in cultural mind-set or the need for technical investments.

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