How an open floor plan is killing your workplace culture
What I’ve seen from 10 years working in an open office environment
A few days ago I returned home from visiting a customer in NYC. I was asked to speak at their annual tech talk. It was a great opportunity to work on my public speaking skills while sharing my views and opinions on workplace culture.
I got to hear the customers plans for 2019 and see their product pipeline. I was quite impressed. At one point they mentioned how they would be moving to an open floor plan. The excitement radiated throughout the room and I started to share their excitement.
That was until I heard the story of how one employee was pushing back on their plans to tear down the walls.
I later learned that the person became upset because they felt as if their privacy would soon be gone. I expressed my sympathy since I’ve seen firsthand what happens when the walls are removed. Privacy becomes nonexistent.
The open floor plan is sold with the promise of increasing communication and driving collaboration. But recent studies are showing just the opposite. New challenges are introduced when everyone sits together in one open room. And if these problems aren’t triaged they can have a profound impact on everyone and ultimately kill your workplace culture.
According to a recent study by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban, they found that the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%), while electronic interactions increased. And this research is just the tip of the iceberg.
An open floor plan is not only playing a role in lower productivity, but it’s also impacting personal well-being. It’s leading to people taking more sick days and may potentially be causing burnout.
Here are a few things you can expect in an open office environment:
People can’t focus because they’re either distracted by someone walking by or talking within earshot.
Managers overhear people talking and feel the need to be involved in every conversation. This leads to subordinates not feeling trusted.
People avoid distractions by drowning out background sounds with headphones. This creates isolation and results in less collaboration.
People are on edge because they feel like they’re always on display and don’t have privacy. This leads to higher anxiety levels and impacts personal well-being.
People can see when someone’s not at their desk. This introduces a pressure to be on time for work and in their chair throughout the day.
Sounds crazy, right? But when you consider how everyone is sitting in one room with a forced air system, it’s easy to see how germs can spread.
Surviving in an open office environment
Although there are plenty of other survival situations that are far worse than an open floor plan (e.g., falling into shark-infested waters). Here are a few things I’ve found helpful for staying alive in an open office.
Create a team nook
A team nook is a space where your team temporarily relocates to for a dedicated project, sprint, or specific period of time. It’s important for it to be away from any high trafficked areas to reduce distractions.
Avoid Air Returns
Air returns pull old stale air out of a room which is (hopefully) replaced with fresh air. Sitting near air returns may increase your chances of getting sick.
Find a place to escape to
Having places people can find comfort is important. I used to have a favorite couch I would visit daily. Also, a meeting room and office library are other good places that should be available for people to escape to.
Ability to work from home
Building a thriving culture means investing in people’s well-being. There’s no better way to offer a healthier work/life balance than letting people work from home when needed.
When will this fad end? What’s next?
It seems as though the open office plan is still gaining traction, even with more studies published every day. And although there’s not a clear path forward, I’d expect at some point offices will revert back to a walled type environment. But it will be different. The floor plans of the future will incorporate some of the good found in open environments. They’ll be designed by the people for the people. And most importantly, they’ll make well-being a priority.
What’s your take?
If you’re currently working in an open office environment I’d love to know what challenges you’ve faced and how you’re solving them.