Open Space or Remote – What’s the Best Work Environment for You?

Those of us who work in an office have seen a lot of change over the past fifteen years. As I recall, Google was an early disruptor on what the inside an office could look like. HUH Magazine wrote a story when Google opened an office in Ireland and included a few pictures. The question I have is if this is the best work environment? Did their investment pay off?

As I understand, these types of workspaces were created to help foster innovation, collaboration and teamwork. Google has become famous for creating such environments to help come up with new ideas for new business models. The concept behind this strategy is to create large, open work environments where employees can readily collaborate and work together to solve problems. Below is a picture of Samsung’s office in the Silicon Valley, as shared on their website.

 

Is open the best work environment?

Facebook will soon put several thousand of its employees into a single mile-long room. Wow. I hope they include bicycles to get around!

 

Is Open Space the Best Work Environment, and the Future for all Offices?

According to the Harvard Business Review, emerging evidence suggests that chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers actually do increase engagement and interactions (source). But, there is also a cost: distractions. According to research referenced in an article in the Wall Street Journal, the activity or movement around the edges of an employee’s field of vision can erode concentration and disrupt analytical thinking or creativity. What is going on here?

The article referenced Sabine Kastner, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University. She has been studying how the brain pays attention for 20 years [seems like a long time … maybe she got distracted? 🙂 ]. Her conclusion is that unpredictable movements around the edges of a person’s field of vision compete for cognitive resources. Seems logical.

Here is the challenge – people differ in their ability to filter out visual stimuli. For some, a loud or cluttered office can make it nearly impossible to concentrate. Similarly, in an experiment with Chinese factory workers, published in 2012 by Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, validated that teams were 10-15% more productive when they worked behind a curtain, which shielded them from supervisors’ view.

 

What is the Best Way Forward?

Organizations now recognize that a large, wide open format may not be the best work environment for all workers. As a result, companies are making changes. Some are easy to accommodate, such as adding large plants and private workspaces to shield employees from passersby. Boston Consulting Group installed 500 oversized, curved computer monitors at employees’ desks to help shield the line of site view seen by office workers.

One size seldom fits all. The same can be said of office environments. Some people work great in a highly collaborative environment – others are challenged. Interestingly, the growth of remote working could in part be attributed to a backlash against the open workspace strategy. Remote workers don’t have to worry about unpredictable movements around the edges of their field of vision – but these workers might not get the same advantages of working in a high collaboration environment.

Perhaps the best strategy is to create hybrid environments or schedules? Office workers could rotate through various types of work environments based on what needs to get done that week. Remote working is a great place to work on projects that require high concentration and minimal distractions. Open space offices could be leveraged when collaborative activities need to be done.

What do you think? I suspect there isn’t just one answer. Regardless, what we consider the “new” normal today will soon be “old school” tomorrow, as the cycle will likely continue in search of the perfect work environment.