Myths of the Open Office Environment

About a year ago I wrote an article comparing an open office environment with remote working. It seemed like both options were gaining momentum – yet each seemed diametrically opposite from each other. Companies were embracing either one or the other concept, but not both.

I thought it might be interesting to revisit this topic to see what new findings might have surfaced over the past 12 months, or what change in sentiment has occurred.

Let’s start by talking about open office environments. A good example is what Facebook calls its MPK20 building, completed in 2015. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the office campus is quite big at 430,000 square feet and includes a 9-acre rooftop park. Watch this video to see how impressive it is:

On the video, mark walks you through a tour of his new Facebook HQ. Much of the workspace is an open-air environment. On the roof, it literally is out in the open air, with plenty of workspaces to accommodate any type of environment you could imagine. Certainly nothing bad with how this building looks. And everyone looks happy in the video.

The Cool Office

Sometimes it is important to look beyond the surface to really understand what is going on. I propose this type of evaluation is warranted here. Companies such as Facebook, Apple, Google and others now face – and have faced – a very tight labor market. Finding skilled engineers to join their ranks is quite often the only constraint these companies face to achieve growth objectives.

If you were running a similar company, you would do nearly anything to gain an advantage over other employers. As a result, competition for top talent is fierce. Anything that can be done to entice new workers to join your company is time, effort and resources well spent.

Another important factor we need to consider is the increasing role Millennials now play in the workplace – at 56 million workers in the U.S. labor force. Since 2016, this demographic group now comprises the largest generation in the labor force.

Related article: Establish a Flexible Work Schedule to Address Millennial Needs

See the below diagram from Pew Research to see how this demographic compares to the others in the workforce.

Millennials became the largest generation in the labor force in 2016

As a result, having a “cool” office environment is likely a critical reason why these investments were made. But companies don’t invest hundreds of millions of dollars into something just to be “cool.” There must be a reason with a justifiable ROI.

As it turns out, there is another positive benefit with open space environments – they are cheaper to build and maintain. Need to add another 10 desks because you just hired a new team? No problem. Just move the current desks or cubicles around, and you are done. This type of layout makes it simple to expand or contrast your office footprint.

On the other hand, those that have worked in office spaces with lots of individual offices know how hard it is to change that type of layout. You can’t! Once an office is built, it’s pretty much there to stay. This scenario leads to interesting modifications to accommodate growth. I have seen 4 people fit into what was at one time an executive office.

The Fake News on an Open Office Environment

One of the biggest reasons why companies say they are adopting an open office environment is to promote collaboration. Here are a few of the different ways I have seen it described:

  • Contributes to greater interaction between employees on a regular basis
  • Generates a sense of camaraderie among personnel
  • Enhances the flow of information and teamwork
  • Eases access to advice or assistance without having to knock on a door, or schedule a formal meeting
  • Drives greater innovation

There is nothing wrong with greater collaboration. In fact, it is a good thing and can help overcome organizational and customer challenges – as well as point to a path for growth – with great success.

According to McKinsey & Company, more than 70 percent of the senior executives in a survey they recently conducted say that innovation will be at least one of the top three drivers of growth for their companies in the next three to five years (source). However, the McKinsey research revealed a wide gap between the aspirations of executives to innovate and their ability to execute. Further, their conclusion was that organizational structures and processes are not the solution.

Stated differently, we don’t spend all day trying to innovate. The ideas are easy. It is laying out a plan and executing upon that idea is where it gets tough. Here is where the shift in focus transitions from the idea to making it happen. A good foundation for successful execution is an efficient team, smart resource allocation, and great leadership

Here is where the open office environment strategy starts to fall apart. Research performed by Oxford Economics suggests this trend detracts from employee productivity.

Oxford Economics published a report, detailed here. The firm surveyed 1,200 execs and employees for their feelings on the office of the future.  68% of the respondents ranked the ability to work with minimal disruption in their top three most important aspects of a workplace—compared to just 7% when asked about amenities like free food and on-site daycare.

Sadly, executives are not getting the message—the desire to minimize distractions is one of the least considered aspects when designing office space, according to the survey. Maybe this is because often the executives making the decision to use an open office layout are doing so from their own private office! It is hard to understand what an open office environment is like unless you work in one for an extended period.

The Headphone Accessory

As a side note in conclusion to my evaluation, I thought it worthwhile to mention how today’s workers are managing to work in these open office environments.

An interesting coping mechanism has clearly emerged with those working in these environments – the use of headphones to drown out the noise. If you see a co-worker with headphones on, how likely are you going to go over to them, tap on their shoulder and ask them a question? If you see someone wearing headphones, they are essentially telling you “don’t bother me!” Next time you are in an open office environment, look around at how many are wearing headphones.

Remote Working Update

Those of you who have been reading my articles for some time now are aware of my view on remote working. Interestingly, IBM’s decision to ban this type of working environment put the topic at the top of many conversations and discussions.

See this article to learn more: What is Happening at IBM – Is Remote Working Dead?

Read this report for a more complete perspective: The Remote Working Revolution

If I reflect on the last 12 months, as an opinion of one, I certainly haven’t heard of any other company announcements banning remote working.

In fact, it seems to have become increasingly common and accepted. One point of reference is the “dog barking” scenario. A couple of years ago, if I heard a dog barking in the background, I felt bad for whoever’s dog it was. There was usually an awkward silence thereafter, followed by apologies with a scramble to go on mute.

Just last week, a dog started barking on an industry analyst call I was on. The group started laughing, with questions on how there must be something interesting going on in the background. This was a different response and “vibe” than just a couple of years ago.

Interestingly, there might be another factor driving more workers to work from home – at least a couple of times a week – escaping the noise and distractions from their open office environments!

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