From The Wall Street Journal to the BBC, every day there's a story about why open offices fail. The reasons for failure run the gamut: they're deemed unhealthy, stress-inducing, and counter-productive due to lack of privacy and lower employee satisfaction. Yes, these are undesirable outcomes--but they're most likely the unintended results of poorly designed, one-size-fits-all open office plans.
With most, if not all, of these failed open office environments, one key principle is grossly misunderstood: it's not about saving space! Great design is about enabling people to share knowledge, assisting them in the creative process and increasing an organization's productivity.
Before joining the backlash against open offices, think about balancing form and function. Here's how.
1. Don't lead with design.
Evidence-based planning is key to successful open office environments. An open office design can flood more natural light into the space, include views for all employees--not the select few--and expose higher ceilings, which feel great from every standpoint. The ingredient that is missing is function. What are the business objectives of the organization? Workspaces should be designed to support work processes, not to lower occupancy costs.
In today's office environment, workstations are unoccupied 60 percent of the time, and private offices are vacant 77 percent of the time. This is where today's businesses are finding the greatest increase in productivity. A well-planned open workplace enables employee choice. They no longer have to hunt for space to collaborate, contemplate, or focus.
2. Put your company's most valuable asset first.
Consider how much thought and engineering goes into the design of a factory to ensure that all of the sophisticated machinery within it is working optimally. In nearly all businesses, people are the most sophisticated and expensive asset. Companies may implement an open office solely to reduce rent without considering this simple fact: rent typically constitutes a mere 9 percent of operational costs. Employee costs, on the other hand, make up nearly 80 to 90 percent of a company's balance sheet. Imagine how much more profitable companies could be if every workplace were built to optimize interaction and performance. With 70 percent of workers feeling disengaged at work, tailored office spaces present an enormous opportunity for employers to raise the bar.
3. Tailor the space to your culture.
The traditional boundaries in an office layout are not conducive to knowledge-sharing, engagement, and technology-enabled focus. A new workplace that has been tailored to an organization's process and culture can effectively blur the territorial boundaries and provide a competitive advantage.
Too often, people see open offices as a one-size-fits-all solution, when in fact each company's open office needs are vastly different based on what each employee's workload entails. Instead of assigning space by rank, assign it based on each person's day-to-day activities.
So as you read articles criticizing open offices, consider how they simply focus on what doesn't work, instead of what should have been implemented in the first place. For decades, almost every company has had an open office environment of some kind, and these aren't going anywhere. Rather than throwing out the entire concept, companies should consider how to make open office environments work to their advantage and seek expert guidance on how this workplace investment drives overall business success.