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How to Create an Open-Source Office

No one loves open-plan offices. Here are tips for designing one that actually boosts employee productivity.
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By now, we've gotten used to the idea of accelerating change. Our news cycle has shrunk, our cultural metabolism has sped up (thank you, Internet), and the pace of disruption means that huge companies can crumble in the blink of an eye. What's less widely accepted is the fact that these changes have consequences in the way that we physically work. In other words: An ever-changing market requires an ever-changing office.

Theoretically, an open-plan office is a great format for a changeable work environment, a place where employees have a say over how they work and a place that can adapt to their needs and to the needs of the business. At Warby Parker, we have open-plan offices because they embody our belief in transparency and make mingling among departments a daily practice (or, more accurately, an inevitability). They also reinforce our sense of a common purpose.

But the biggest reason that 70 percent of all workplaces use open-plan offices isn't so they can create a flexible, creative work environment that responds to employee needs. It's because they are the cheapest way to squeeze more employees into a smaller amount of square footage. Truthfully, that was an attractive benefit for us as well.

But even though we work in open-plan offices, we know the format has plenty of flaws. Studies have shown that an open office damages productivity, attention spans, creative thinking, and satisfaction.

So what do you, as a business owner, do to make the most of this type of workspace?

First, let's acknowledge that the ideal office space is a myth. Second, it's important to recognize that productivity is a fragile condition, made of a mix of autonomy, collaboration, noise, silence, privacy, sociability, natural light, and visual stimulation.

We all have a personal recipe for productivity. One person may need six cups of autonomy and just a pinch of collaboration. Another person may require heaps of sociability and noise, with just a teaspoon of occasional privacy. Some people work better in warm environments. Others feel their engines run faster in a chilly room. One man's cubicle farm is another man's bullpen.

The trick to maximizing your team's productivity is to create a workspace that's flexible, so it can be altered according to the ever-changing needs of the company and its team members. Our solution has been to create an open office plan with other options: communal tables for collaborative work, a set of isolated nooks for private study, and more informal in-between zones. We also encourage managers to work closely with their teams to figure out optimal working situations--if an employee needs to work from home for a few hours each week on projects that require unbroken focus, that's doable (provided it's planned).

Our office has the added feature (or liability, depending on your work habits) of near-constant spontaneity, thanks to the showroom installed right inside headquarters. Customers come in and go out all day to shop for glasses, and the constant flow of energy adds some liveliness to the office routine. For those who like a more tranquil desk area, there's plenty of space beyond showroom sightlines.

Most important, we like to think of the Warby Parker office as an open-source workplace--a fluid space that changes from week to week on the basis of feedback from team members. It's a crucial part of maximizing productivity in an open-plan office: Create a channel for employees to provide feedback and ideas to their managers. We sift through these ideas, and when possible, we execute them. Giving employees agency over their workspace encourages them to think carefully about the conditions in which they work best, and it gives them the tools to forge that environment.

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Mar 13, 2014

NEIL BLUMENTHAL | Columnist | Co-founder and Co-CEO, Warby Parker

Neil Blumenthal is co-founder and co-CEO of the lifestyle company Warby Parker, which is based in New York City.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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