Work Life

It’s Time to Face the Big, Open Space

Photo of Holger Reisinger
October 21, 2014
Reading time
4 minutes
We’ve seen the research and heard all the warnings: big, open offices kill creativity, stress out the employees, and crush productivity. But this is only half the story. You can actually make open space offices work. All it takes is a very important choice and a closer look at your company’s culture. 
They were the kings of the financial crisis: the procurement officers that cut costs and gave imperiled companies the extra cash on the bottom line that they were dying for. They saved our butts when saving money was easier than selling products – and we thank them!
However, in order to cut costs on real estate, they also took big, open space offices to a completely new level. In a CoreNet Global survey, 55 percent of the corporate real estate professionals surveyed reported that square footage per worker has decreased between five and 25 percent over the last five years. Forty percent of the respondents predicted that their companies will reach less than 100 square feet per worker in 2017 (an all-time low).  And, the average for all companies for square footage per worker in 2017 will be 151 square feet, compared to 225 square feet in 2010.
Less space is money saved. But cramming people together in less space takes a toll on work life quality. An overwhelming amount of research shows that big, open space offices generate stress, spoils co-worker relations, and reduces employee motivation. Recent research from Sweden also proves that the bigger the office rooms, the more sick days increase.
So, here’s the combo from hell: in the coming years, employees will be forced into even less space – which, in turn, has been proved to reduce our productivity, wellbeing, and innovation.

Get the best of both worlds

Fortunately, the two can actually go hand in hand. The open office may have a bad name for a number of good reasons, but it is actually possible to make it work as intended. All that is required is for you to make a very important decision – and then start changing your company’s culture to fit that choice.

Ideally, work places need the best of both worlds: open space to facilitate conversations and innovation, as well as quiet rooms for concentration and individual work that require heavy-duty thinking. If you can’t have both, you need to answer a really tough question: what’s most important at your workplace?
When is your company’s most value creating work actually done? Are you most dependent on collaboration and constant interaction? Or, are you more dependent on individual work with a high concentration level?
Once you have decided, the next choices will more or less make themselves. First, the design: individual thinking is best done in a library-like environment; knowledge sharing works better if you dedicate your few square feet to a café-like environment.
When the physical layout is in place, it’s time to work on your company’s culture. All employees must respect the individual’s choice of workstyle. And you need to provide options if you need to collaborate in a quiet work-for-yourself environment and vice versa. That’s where stuff like small, separate rooms for meetings, opportunities for working at home, headsets to reduce noise issues, etc., comes in.

Engage with your employees – and make the decision together

Making the decision is hard. Of course, we all want the best of both worlds, but an office design that fits everyone fits … no one. That’s one of many reasons why you shouldn’t make this decision alone. You must make it along with the employees, and you must also lay out the ground rules and values of working together in the office space. In the library, you will whisper and respect people’s time alone. In a creative lab, you don’t hide behind a screen with your anti-social solitude.

If you all agree on the basics of your company culture, an ongoing fruitful discussion commences. How can we be even better at taking care of our work environment? How do we secure that we stay innovative if we primarily work in silence – and how do we get some personal work and thinking done if we are all in a constant dialog? In this way, we continuously improve. And that’s the key to any great achievement. Rome – and the perfect open office – weren’t built in a day.
The right choice, a supporting culture and continuous improvement, is the recipe for high productivity and happy employees. It may take some time to get there, but when you do, it means a lot of money for your company. And we know that money makes everyone happy – especially our friends in procurement!
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