How to make open offices work for everyone

Dick Resch

By Dick Resch

Whoever thought walls and doors could go out of style? Apparently, that’s what has happened at offices nationwide. Seven in 10 American offices now have an open floor plan, rather than cubicles or private rooms.

The open office aims to boost creativity, productivity and collaboration by making it easy for employees to interact. But that hasn’t been the case for everybody. A study published this summer by researchers at Harvard Business School found that in-person interactions actually dropped more than 70 percent after workers moved from a cubicle to an open-plan workspace. Employee productivity also declined.

Open offices and isolating cube farms aren’t our only choices. Borrowing the best from both design approaches can give workers what they’re really after — control and ownership of their workspace. When people decide for themselves where and how they work, they’re happier and more productive. That pays dividends for employees and employers alike.

The mystique surrounding open offices is due in part to their popularity in Silicon Valley. But tech companies are not alone in trading walls for side-by-side work. Citigroup recently converted its headquarters to an open floor plan. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg preferred a wall-less “bullpen” setup during his tenure in City Hall.

Evangelists for open-plan workspaces often cite the serendipitous interactions they encourage. As Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat told the Wall Street Journal, “You’re going to be forced to bump into people. … I want people interacting around our business and ideas.”

But all that mingling doesn’t help everyone. A 2011 analysis of over 100 studies found that open-plan offices can elevate workers’ stress levels, undermine motivation, and make it harder to concentrate.

To some, open offices can be stressful, noisy and distracting. It’s no wonder people don’t thrive in them when that’s the case.

It’s far better for employers to empower their workers to choose how and where they work. Someone might start their morning in a private work booth to finish a project on a tight deadline — and then move to a lounge in the afternoon to brainstorm with colleagues or recharge.

Some businesses are already embracing this flexible approach. Last summer, financial services firm Northwestern Mutual opened its new Milwaukee headquarters. Before designing the 32-story office tower, the company surveyed its employees on how they wanted workspaces to look, feel and function.

People wanted workspaces they could control. That led to workstations where employees can sit or stand. They can raise privacy screens to shut out distractions. And they can quickly reconfigure their workspaces with mobile tables, stools and whiteboards for impromptu meetings or brainstorming sessions.

Research backs up this flexible approach. A University of Exeter study found that empowering employees to control the design of their workspace increases productivity by as much as 32 percent.

When people can take ownership over how they work, they care more about that work. Employees who can move to a variety of workspaces are 1.3 times more likely to be engaged than other employees.

Nobody wants to work in complete isolation — or utter chaos. Fortunately, they don’t have to choose between the two. Employers looking to maximize happiness and productivity must give workers control over their space. Research shows that they know full well what to do with it.

(Dick Resch is chief executive officer of KI Furniture (