There has been an ongoing debate around open versus closed office spaces and which one is better. Open offices tend to enable collaboration, yet they are also prone to cause distractions and noise. Closed offices and cubicles tend to allow for more focused work, but they can also be a bit depressing and not encourage collaboration and communication. So which one do you go with?
Unfortunately, all of these debates and arguments around open versus closed offices miss the point entirely. The best office spaces leverage multiple workspace options. UK-based Leesman studied and surveyed over 110,000 people and found that there are actually 21 workplace activities that employees participate in. These range from planned meetings to individual focused work to collaborating to relaxing and taking a break. Clearly not all of these activities are effectively done in a single type of a space. Think of an office space as a house where every room is designed for a specific purpose. You eat in the dining room, cook in the kitchen, sleep in the bedroom, and relax in the living room. Each room is specifically designed for a certain type of living.
Employees need access to environments that enable them to do their best work. This is in the best interest of the organization and of the employees who work there. This is why the most forward-thinking organizations are actually creating multiple floor plans instead of focusing on just open or closed spaces. None of the forward-thinking organizations in the world commit to just a single type of workspace environment (or even two or three!). I explored this for my latest book. When I visited the offices of SAP, I noticed that they have a very wide variety of spaces that employee can choose to work from. This included modern cubicle-like environments, open spaces, cafe and lounge areas, collaboration spaces, quiet areas, outside work areas, and more. By creating this type of environment, organizations are telling employees that they understand that their jobs aren’t linear and that they need work options that allow them to choose how they would be most productive for a given task. A recent article published in Harvard Business Review found that employees who have more choices over their workplace scored higher on innovation, job performance, job satisfaction, and workplace satisfaction.
Perhaps one of the best examples of an organization that offers multiple workspace options is commercial real estate company CBRE, which redesigned its Los Angeles offices to focus on 16 spaces to work. Think about that–most employees are lucky if they are afforded a way to work beyond their cubicles, but 16 spaces is really astonishing. CBRE is in the process of pushing this out to its other offices, as well. These spaces include everything from a client conference room and open team areas and even a Zen garden area. Each of these spaces caters to a specific way that employees at CBRE work.
I recently spoke with Freddie Chow, the chief talent officers for the Asia Pacific Region of Sanofi. Freddie and his team made a radical change and eliminated all the offices in the organization. Instead they focused their efforts on something known as Activity Based Working, which is a concept where employees don’t have any assigned seats. Instead they have multiple floor plan and workspace options they can select from based on the activity or task they are doing. After this shift Freddie and his team saw an increase in productivity, engagement, and collaboration, along with a reduction in real estate costs.
A word of caution when thinking about the physical workspace. When we see or hear about organizations like Google or Facebook, one of the first things we think about is their amazing office spaces. Business leaders flock from all over the world to visit these organization in an attempt to bring back some things they can implement at their own companies. The thought process is that if Google has a giant slide, your company should get one too, or if Facebook has a cafeteria of free food, your company needs it as well. What many of these people fail to realize is that you can’t simply copy a Google or a Facebook, nor should you. These organizations might seem like they are just building anything that looks fun, but everything they do in relation to their physical environment is done strategically and with purpose. Organizations that invest in beautiful spaces don’t just do it for fun.
Atlassian has a modern and beautiful office space. I asked its executive team if they just hired a design firm and threw money at making an awesome-looking space–they laughed at me! Atlassian actually analyzed how employees worked by using sensors attached to employees’ desks and speaking with employees. After looking at the data, executives realized that employees hardly used assigned seating, which led them to design a space that made sense for them, a more open central plan that leveraged multiple other ways of working. It used data to understand how employees work. Atlassian then designed around that. Many other companies enlist employees in designing and building their dream spaces. You will be amazed how excited an engaged employees will be if you tell them they can design their own environments.
Leveraging multiple workspace options and creating a space that allows your employees to work on their many responsibilities in a great environment can lead to huge gains in productivity and overall employee morale.
My new book, The Employee Experience Advantage (Wiley, 2017) analyzes over 250 global organizations to understand how to create a place where people genuinely want to show up to work. Subscribe to the newsletter here.