The curse of the open office
Ditching corner C-suites for benching systems and private meeting rooms for beanbag chairs, today’s offices are built to get employees working together.
And though companies may be saving on space, it may be costing them big on productivity.
Gensler’s new 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey says there’s been a 6 percent slump in workplace performance since 2008 — primarily driven by a decrease in employee focus. Openness has become standard practice in offices, but many companies aren’t providing enough separate areas where employees can do quiet, independent work.
“I think what’s been happening is there’s been such a huge focus around getting people to collaborate — collaboration has been happening more in the work environment than it used to,” says Nila Leiserowitz, Gensler’s regional managing principal. “We just need to do a reset in terms of understanding how to make both spaces effective — both the open benching system [where employees sit alongside one another at long workstations with minimal barriers], which serves a great purpose around knowledge sharing, and at the same time understanding the need for focus and where that focus needs to happen.”
The move toward openness comes as square footage per worker is shrinking — from 2010 to 2012, the average square foot per person dropped from 225 to 176, a trend forecasted to plummet to 100 by 2017, according to Corenet, a corporate real estate association. And with less personal space, focus comes at a loss — 53 percent of employees surveyed said they’re disturbed by others when trying to focus, and 69 percent were dissatisfied with noise levels at work.
What employers need to do, the study concluded, is give employees a choice. Alternative spaces, from small breakout rooms to a cafe where employees can take laptops to do quiet work, are necessary spaces when open-area rowdiness crescendos.
For example: the British-style phone booths where Digitas employees can make quiet calls, the “enchanted forest” fallen-log tables where Groupon co-workers can go for a tete-a-tete, or West Monroe Partners’ sprawling cafeteria, where employees can step away from the buzz of the open seating plan to do some independent work.
“The ratio is, in addition to your primary work area, you need another area to meet and collaborate,” Leiserowitz says. “The more open you get, the more you need the ‘one-and-one’ ratio, where [you] have another place to go. It’s not just a breakout area or conference room but it can be that cafe — it can be a lot of different things.”
That balance isn’t being struck at a lot of offices, says Howard Ecker, who owns an international commercial tenant representation and brokerage firm.
“For older companies that are doing it because, quote-unquote, it’s the right thing to do, or the best way to reduce occupancy costs — they aren’t doing the other things with it culturally that will allow it to succeed,” he says. “Collaborative space, quiet space, private space. That’s key to open space.”
Manifest Digital, a creative agency based in Chicago, was an early adopter of openness. CEO Jim Jacoby describes his previous office at 600 W. Chicago as “one giant open room.”
“I thought, this is what I wanted the whole time,” he said earlier this year. “The issue is, in one giant open room with, let’s say, 60 to 80 people, you have so many different emotions and communication styles mixing that it just didn’t work. If you had somebody upset, that would just wash over the room. You had line of sight to everything and everybody. It just did not work.”
Since moving to the Jeweler’s Building, the firm operates in a doughnut shape around conference areas, a large kitchen and different areas for employees to get away from the benching system when they need to.
Chicago-based ifbyphone, which creates voice-based marketing automation solutions, let departments design their own spaces by consensus when it moved to 300 W. Adams from Skokie two years ago. The marketing and customer success teams opted for a more open design, while sales chose more private cubes with acoustic panels to keep noise down. A dark room provides engineers with an extra space for mental heavy-lifting when they need to get away from their usual workspace.
“If they’re in there, unless its an emergency, you don’t talk to them,” Executive Vice President of Customer Experience Cindy Pogrund says.
A multipurpose room and a “Zen” area let employees get away from their desks to meet or hunker down with a stack of work. For companies trying to balance employees used to traditional offices with those who’d like to rub elbows, Pogrund says mixing it up is fine.
“Make it eclectic,” she says. “There’s a place for open, but there’s also a place for doors.”
ABOVE: Razorfish’s office in the Merchandise Mart balances an open plan with personal space. File photo by Sara Mays