Q&A: The open-office conundrum, and the future of workspace design

Open offices are here to stay. Now what do we do about them? And what’s next?

Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The idea of the open office almost needs no introduction, having been one of the most polarizing changes in workspace design in the last twenty years. A quick scan of recent headlines on the topic – referring to recent research – range from “kills productivity” to “a disaster” to “insanely stupid.” Research from Harvard Business School published in the Royal Society concluded that after transitioning to an open-office space, face-to-face communication decreased, and email communication increased.

Open offices have been blamed in research from everything from burnout, spreading illness, stress, and poor posture.  Workers mostly dislike them, to put it mildly. Yet a majority of U.S. employees work in an open office, and it looks like they’re here to stay.

Erica Denner, Head of People at YouEarnedIt/HighGround, an employee experience platform focused on recognition, rewards, and performance management, talked to Ladders about how employers could evaluate their need for open-office plans thoughtfully – and whether some types of jobs would be best without them. She also talked about the future in office space design: hot-desking.

Do you have a particular interest in open-office spaces?

It’s very interesting to me because it does really speak to much about the conversations that are happening in the workplace today, namely about balancing employee engagement and productivity – and the fact that over 70% of the US employees actually work in an open-office space, according to research. Office spaces have become a physical expression of who the company is and also who they want to be, and so those things combined to pique my personal interest in this topic along with the fact that I have worked in open-office spaces and dealt with some of the challenges that come with that. It’s been interesting to get to read through the research and see kind of what the latest thoughts are on these topics.

How do employers keep an eye and ear on the employee experience and match it accordingly to the office space design? 

I think one of the things that a lot of companies sort of missed the mark on when open offices spaces first started becoming popular and trendy is they didn’t really stop and think about why they wanted to move to open-office space. What is the propose of having this type of set up? What are we trying to accomplish? What’s needed for the organization? And what activities are being done, and how are they being done?

And I think what happens is all these companies … didn’t stop to think about the work that was actually being done, and so when we’re thinking about how do we align the employee experience with the office space design, I think the most important question to ask: What is our goal with this? Answering [that] question provides some clarity, especially because every industry is a little bit different, every department is a little bit different, every person is a little bit different. There is an inherent assumption in an open-office space design that people are extroverted and like to be collaborating all the time, which isn’t necessarily true across the board.

[It’s] looking at what people are doing all day. Where are people sitting? Who are people talking to? Referring back to the researchers: Where is the noise coming from? And where are people collaborating? And, again, this is from research from Steelcase, 77% of people working in an open-space design have an assigned work station, but over 87% of them spend two to four hours every day working somewhere else.

Those are all things that should be taken into account. The reality is that a lot of these companies and organizations went to a pretty extreme form of open-office space design, and so now they’re kind of backtracking a little bit, and it’s not realistic to think that every company can all of a sudden change their workspace totally – but there are definitely some things that can be done. What we’re really seeing in research and in what companies are starting to do is this sort of hybrid model where there is private spots, or phone rooms, or collaboration spaces, and also some open just space.

Do we all need to be open office? 70% is a lot. Do you think it’s better for some types of jobs or industries and not as good for others?

I would 100% agree with you that I don’t think open-office space is the answer for all types of companies and all types of industries, [although] I definitely think there are some pros to open-office spaces.

I’m actually close friends with an accountant and they all went to open-office space and she kind of laughed about it, saying that, “There are things that are private and confidential and we’re in an open space, and it doesn’t align with the type of work that we are doing.” It goes back to that question for the leaders of a law firm or an accounting firm to think of “Why are we doing this?,” “What are we hoping to get out of this change?”

Quite frankly I think a lot of the reason at the beginning was cost-savings, and that kind of got buried a little bit and came out as “It’s about engagement; it’s collaborative.” Open-office space or a hybrid model can work great for certain industries or companies, but that is not a one size fits all.

Could you talk about best practices for getting employee feedback and the open office issue, and keeping people engaged, no matter what their workspace is?

I think one of the key issues here is, and this comes from an ideal state, is if a company does have a workplace and culture and mission that does support that open-office space, I think there needs to be a variety of office spaces for different purposes, and I think that helps keep employees engaged because they can match their surroundings to what they are doing.

If somebody needs to prep, or is more introverted or does more solitary work, they can pick that type of environment within the office that fits those needs. As opposed to say a sales organization that is maybe bit louder and needs a bit more collaboration space, they can then go to a designated space for that.

Now everyone is talking about hot-desking. It seems like that’s the next step, after open offices.

I definitely think we’ll see a lot more organizations using hot-desking. … I think it’s driven by the technology. We have Slack and Google, all this other technology and collaboration tools, that makes it easier to work from home. There’s definitely a lot of studies about people working from home, about how it has been steadily increasing, so I think it’s sort of the combination of all those things – it’s easier to collaborate digitally, that there’s always a thought of cost-saving for organizations and how much space they need, especially for companies that have people that are not in the office for the majority of the time.

So if they’re big sales organizations or sales departments, those people aren’t there very much, so I do think we’ll see it, and I think we’ll have some similar issues [as with open offices].

People generally like routine and they like to have their own space, so I’ll be curious to see if this is the next iteration of the office design. I think there will be some challenges for that as well, but I think we will definitely see that increase in conjunction with more work from home and remote work. That’s one of the trends that I think is going to continue.

Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.