Open Office – Is It For Everyone?

Over the weekend, my colleague Robert Norton posted an article on Facebook that spoke out against the open work environment titled, “Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.”  The article first appeared in December on the site for The Washington Post and Rob’s comment on Facebook was that he was neither supporting nor disputing the article, but just sharing.

The article, written by Lindsay Kaufman, complained of a tough transition to an open environment after nine years in a private office.  The article talked about noisy co-workers, music being played throughout the office, and constant conversations in her cluster of cubicles.  And that doesn’t cover all of it.

At the end of the article, she requested more private spaces that weren’t fishbowls, rules for office etiquette, no music being blared through the office sound system, and the ability to work from home.

While some may argue that she makes some great points (and she may), I argue that her company did a poor job implementing their new workplace environment.

An open plan isn’t for everyone.  When designing a space, it’s imperative to understand how the business works and how the people work within the space.  Interviewing key employees, as well as observing the workflow, are critical in getting the design right.

Many new work environments are also focused on creating a certain culture within the office. Lindsay’s complaint about loud music either means that someone is trying to force a culture that enjoys it, or that she doesn’t fit the culture. A prominent accounting firm in New Jersey uses one of their corner spaces for a ping pong table.  It’s about the culture they are trying to create, not the ping pong.

Change management and communication are also key components to any move.  One of our large clients recently renovated and reconfigured their headquarters, floor-by-floor.  They thought they were doing a great job of communicating by displaying the new furniture that would be used in the new space.  However, their employees weren’t as concerned with the furniture as they were with the decrease in personal space.  They weren’t informed on the front end about the additional amenities and collaborative spaces that would be present once the renovation was complete.  Had they communicated better, highlighting what they were getting rather than what was being taken away, the message and overall moral would have been different.

In addition, with any new work environment comes different ways to work and different etiquette.  Had Lindsay’s company spent time educating their employees and encouraging certain behavior before the change, it would have seemed more seamless once they were in an open environment.

It’s possible that her company did a great job and that Lindsay was just the squeaky wheel.  It’s also possible that she wasn’t nearly as unhappy as the article portrays, but the complaints make for a better story.  However, had her company taken the time to manage not only the change to an open plan, but also the message, it’s my bet that she wouldn’t have had anything to write about.