Is it Time to Rethink Open Office Layout?

Photo courtesy: KI website

By Brian Krenke

You don’t have to be a management guru to know that companies perform better when employees and managers trust one other.

The data back up this seemingly obvious intuition. Metrics on trust make up two-thirds of the criteria Fortune magazine uses in its list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Those companies post average annual returns that are triple those of the S&P 500.

There are plenty of ways to foster trust at work, from company retreats to transparent decision-making processes. But one strategy that’s overlooked is thoughtful workplace design. Office layouts that build trust give employees control over their workspaces — and allow them to dictate how and where they’ll do their best work.

Yet, the existing workplace status quo is one of extremes. All too often, people end up isolated in cubicle farms or drowned out in the din of an open office.

It doesn’t have to be that way: Research from architectural firm Gensler showed that it doesn’t matter whether a workplace is open or closed; an office will boost productivity if it’s designed to meet employees’ specific needs.
Consider the need for privacy. No one wants to disturb a roomful of colleagues with a loud phone call — or meet with a client in front of an audience.

It’s not feasible to give every employee a private office. But managers can find a happy medium. Some companies are doing this by reviving a relic of the past — a “phone booth” of sorts.

Microsoft recently scattered soundproof glass-paneled rooms throughout its Seattle headquarters. Workers use them to complete all sorts of tasks that require concentration, from client phone calls to writing code.

These phone booths are popular among workers because they add privacy and minimize self-consciousness. But they also let managers show that they trust their team to stay on task, no matter where they’re working.

Employers can further use design to signal the trust they have in their workers by empowering those workers to create their own workspaces.

That doesn’t mean arming everyone in the office with a paint roller and sledgehammer. But an element as seemingly small as furniture can give employees that feeling of freedom and control.

Forward-thinking employers are doing just that. Before designing its new Milwaukee headquarters, Northwestern Mutual interviewed its employees and found they wanted workspaces they could move and control. Our team at KI engineered the resulting system, called Tattoo.

Northwestern Mutual employees can now roll desks together for an impromptu team meeting. One team member might slide over a moveable wall and use it as a whiteboard for a brainstorming session.

Flexible furniture pieces with multiple uses can also communicate to employees that their employers care about their lives outside the office. Consider a stool that doubles as a storage locker. It makes an impromptu conversation easier — and gives a worker somewhere to stash her gym bag so she can get to yoga class on time.

The overall message here? Workers are real people, not robots. They have specific, human needs. By designing physical workspaces that allow the human beings who occupy them to dictate their layout, managers can show they truly understand their employees — and forge trust and community in the process.

(Brian Krenke is CEO of KI Furniture ( This piece originally appeared on, Copyright © 2019 Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.)