The future of the workplace is far different from what we were accustomed to. As mentioned in the previous post, many organizations are starting to rethink how they set up and utilize their office to meet the changing employee demands. One popular trend that many employers are interested in is the implementation of shared office space. Although it’s unlikely that open concept offices will disappear anytime soon, it’s important to note that not everyone is going to benefit from this type of office layout. The aim of this series is to show you the pros and cons of shared workspaces and to provide tips on how we can help our clients successfully navigate the common issues that arise when working in these types of office layouts.
Today's episode is the second part of a two-part series about the "new normal" for office work. In Part 1, I shared three key things: the benefits of shared spaces, the negative impact of a poorly designed system, and the idea of allowing workspace personalization. Here, I’ll be covering four more facts about open-concept offices. Plus, I’ve also included simple solutions on how you can help employers optimize their work environment.
Are you ready to learn how you can make an open-concept office work better for your clients? Scroll down for more.
Many companies want to have a barrierless office design to encourage employees to interact and collaborate, but such spaces can introduce distractions. In fact, visual and auditory distractions are some of the biggest complaints that I often hear about working in shared or open workspaces. Distractions such as visual clutter on a co-worker’s desk, people walking past the line of sight, ringing telephones, and office chatter—just to name a few—bombard employees throughout the day. These unwanted distractions can be particularly irritating when doing tasks that require even moderate amounts of focus and concentration.
Additionally, if the shared workspace has cement floors instead of carpet and is a large open space, then there’s obviously very little that can be done to block the noise level of the system. In my experience in consulting modern office spaces, I’ve noticed that when the loudest area (like the kitchen where people hang out) is placed directly in the center of the office space, it can be a huge visual and auditory distraction. If someone was having a loud conversation in the kitchen, the entire office would certainly hear about it.
So what changes can be done to minimize these distractions and help employees stay focused? Well, there are some practical, low-cost tips that you can incorporate to reduce visual and auditory distractions and improve worker well-being. To minimize auditory distractions of the surroundings, you could recommend using noise-canceling headphones, provide dedicated quiet and loud spaces, mask sound by using white noise, and retrofit sound-absorbing materials such as partitions and carpets. To limit visual distractions, using panels, bookshelves, or 'green' walls of plants (aka living wall systems) to block off parts of the office could help.
Rather than limiting the staff to only perform their work at their desk, set up distinctive areas within the open-concept office to designate specific areas for different needs. This means creating collaborative areas for discussion and group work and quiet areas for focused or individual work. Research has found that bookable and breakout (aka lounges) areas are a must in any open-plan office space. These spaces are essential to the function of an organization because they promote interaction and creativity. That’s why it’s important that these spaces look inviting and comfortable.
On top of that, breakout rooms are also effective in improving the visual and auditory distractions in the workspace. By creating a variety of workspaces, business processes can be improved as staff doesn't have to worry about interrupting their co-workers when they’re on conference calls or engaging in group work or other collaborations.
Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to shared offices, and some staff will like the option while others won’t. A thoroughly and thoughtfully managed open-concept office system is extremely important for staff performance. This is where ergonomics comes into play: testing and examining various set-ups with the staff.
When considering the shift from a traditional to an open-plan system, a participatory approach with staff will give the best results. To adjust open office layout work, the management should also listen to employees, pay attention to how they’re reacting, and be open to feedback. Allowing employees to participate in the process can help them adapt to the change. I've tried this approach a number of times before in a variety of industries.
One of the drawbacks of using an open concept layout is the perception of disconnectedness with supervisors or management, even though everyone shares a common workspace. There have been various studies that counter the main purpose of an open-plan office (to increase productivity and enhance communication), with findings saying that shared or open office layouts decreased face-to-face communication. A study from Harvard found a reduction of face-to-face interactions by roughly 70% following the shift to open-plan offices. The reason for this is because people are more likely to use digital communications such as email or Slack instead of face-to-face communication. This is why it’s essential to have dedicated time for supervisor or team meetings when considering transitioning to an open concept layout.
And that’s it! I’ve shared the top facts that you need to know about open-plan offices. There are obviously some disadvantages, but there are also advantages when designed and used in the right way. Again, it’s essential that the management engage and communicate with all the employees so that problems can be resolved early, thus avoiding expensive changes later in the process.
We must ensure that ergonomics is thought of immediately in these setups because if the open concept layout isn’t carefully planned, it’s going to negatively impact employee productivity and could have a huge lasting result that’s very costly to fix. That's why sharing this information with your clients right now on your email list or when you're having those conversations with them can add some clarity to what they're doing so they don't make these mistakes, and they can keep their employees engaged and productive.
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