For many companies, commercial office space is an enormous expense. It may also be one of the biggest liabilities.

Promising to maximize companies’ real estate investment, a revolution in office design knocked down cubicle and office walls and ushered in the era of the open floor plan. Heralded as a way to build more collaborative teams--not to mention make more efficient use of space--the workplace evolved from offices and cubicles to clusters or rows of desks from end to end. The idea was simple: employees would have greater access to each other and would be better able to share ideas and information. Open floor plans would facilitate collaboration. 

Open office, empty promise

In fact, the opposite happened. Two Harvard Business School researchers found that open floor plans led to a 73 percent decrease in face-to-face interaction, and use of email spiked. Seventeen percent of workers didn’t communicate at all. Open floor plans even led people to be more image conscious, leading to subtle and not-so-subtle sexism.

In addition, technology, team-based projects, and greater awareness of varying work styles have changed workplace behavior. In addition to telephone calls, workers need private places to participate in video conferences, watch training videos, or view webinars. For some employees, open offices can be a primary cause of stress. Imagine trying to close a big deal in a stairwell or hallway. And when workers on a project need to have brief meetings or brainstorming sessions, they need workspaces that can accommodate those huddles. 

“There’s a wave of research showing that open floor plans are really detrimental to creativity in a lot of ways,” says Brian Chen, founder and CEO of New York City-based ROOM, a modular workspace startup. To keep employees happy, you need to give them the right spaces to do their work effectively, he adds. This insight was his inspiration for ROOM, which manufactures prefabricated soundproof booths that offer a solution to the search for private space in offices.

The great conference room waste 

As employees grow tired of the distractions and inability to focus on deep work, they seek places to find privacy or work in small groups. Conference rooms are an obvious solution. However, when large conference rooms are commandeered by small groups, the space isn’t optimized, and larger groups may struggle to find meeting spaces that can accommodate them.

In the report Workplace Utilization, sensor technology and software company Density found that an estimated 55 percent of space in meeting rooms that seat more than 12 people is wasted. For every 100 meeting rooms, assuming an average of 400 square feet and $57 per-square-foot rent, utilities, cleaning, repairs, and taxes, the cost of such wasted space could top $1.4 million per year.

Finding flexible solutions

At New York City real estate firm Compass, conference rooms were in use roughly 80 percent of the time. Working with Density, the firm collected usage data and found that one-third of that time the rooms were occupied by just one person. Based on the firm’s real estate costs in the pricey Big Apple, that’s the equivalent to $30,000 a year in misused real estate.

“Employees would put in a placeholder [for the room] in case they needed it. And that created this hoarding behavior that was just very disruptive to the entire work environment. That’s just one illustration of how big of a problem it is when you don’t provide spaces for privacy or for phone calls for focused work,” Chen says.

Fortunately, fresh thinking about office design, as well as flexible solutions hold cost-saving and efficiency rewards for those who embrace them. For example, after Compass introduced ROOM’s booths, which offer four square feet of private space, each was used an average of 30 times per day, decreasing wasted space in conference rooms. The sustainably-designed soundproof phone booths include a magnetic door that minimizes noise through a magnetic seal, two ultra-quiet fans for ventilation, and a custom built-in desk with a magnetic backboard that provides ample workspace, ultimately giving employees the space they need for phone calls, webinar or video conferences, complex work, or distraction-free intervals.

As the demand for privacy and flexible solutions grows, products like movable partitions and desk-mounted privacy panels can also give workers the distraction-busting barriers they need to focus.

Chen says that a combination of planning and adaptable solutions can help companies maximize their investment in office space. “It starts with the data. The data will tell you what changes need to be made,” he says.

By analyzing how your employees are using your office space, you can gain deeper insight into the environment they need to do their jobs well. As research shows that many companies need to rethink open floor plans and create spaces that give workers privacy and accommodate various types of work and work styles, applying a range of flexible, affordable solutions can optimize your commercial real estate investment while optimizing employee performance.