27 September 2023

Infection hotbeds: Is this the end of open plan?

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Dan Schawbel* believes the pandemic may finally kill off the concept of open plan office work which has dominated corporate thinking for decades.

When the pandemic is finally beaten physical offices will remain, but they’ll look vastly different from what we’ve been used to for the past several decades.

Organisations will adhere to a set of procedures in order to protect their employees, including cleanliness measures and social distancing.

Office spaces will shrink as temporary remote workers become permanent ones and companies limit the number of workers at each facility to comply with safety standards.

A number of major companies such as Twitter and Facebook are already ahead of this trend by announcing permanent work-from-home policies — other will follow suit.

The offices that remain in the COVID-19 aftermath should evolve from open to flexible layouts.

In my short-lived corporate career, I experienced working in cubicles, open, and flexible office arrangements.

The more open and less flexible the office space, the more distracted I was and my productivity suffered as a result.

On the surface, open offices appear to be collaborative, but when you actually experience working in one, you realise how valuable personal space really is.

The open office space discussion has resurfaced because when you eliminate physical barriers between employees, their proximity and socialisation enables the virus to spread more easily.

A study has found that 40 per cent of Americans believe that open offices will be “hotbeds of infection”.

The open office trend started in the 1940s when architects convinced companies that these spaces would promote community, inclusion, and connection in the workplace.

When Google made open offices the new standard they gained universal appeal and were adopted by most companies.

Google hired famous architect, Clive Wilkinson to create open offices at its Mountain View, California headquarters.

At the time, Google was viewed as the most innovative company in the world so its office space was held as the gold standard and the best practice for everyone else.

Today about 80 per cent of companies have opted for an open space with minimal or no divisions between desks.

Realising that open offices are highly distracting, companies have opted to add ‘phone booths’, ‘meeting pods’, ‘huddle rooms’ and ‘meditation rooms’ so that employees have places for both privacy and collaboration.

Even though we can all agree that open offices are highly distracting, some of the largest companies continue to adopt them.

Walmart, which is the United States’ largest employer (by far) with over 1.5 million workers, announced that its new headquarters would have an open floor plan for its 14,000 employees.

Walmart’s leadership felt that an open office was a key to attracting the next generation of talent, dismissing all of the research that would make other companies reconsider that decision.

Harvard researchers, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban found that employees in an open office spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions.

This seems counterintuitive, but proves that we desire privacy.

A separate study found that 60 per cent of the workforce said open offices should be abolished because they are noisy and bad for employees’ concentration and wellbeing.

There’s a disconnect between the office experience that employers are offering and the preferences of workers.

After studying the workplace for more than a decade, I believe that the best office environment is a flexible one.

While many of us are guilty of using the word ‘flexibility’ interchangeably with ‘remote work’, it’s much broader than that.

Flexibility includes remote work, flexible hours, job sharing, maternal and paternal leave, flexible attire (casual vs. formal), and office space.

Flexibility gives workers more control over their time, dress, space, and overall experience.

Flexible office spaces cater to all work preferences and styles.

After traveling around the world, my favourite space still remains LinkedIn’s New York Empire State Building office.

At this office, you can change where you sit and how you get work done throughout your day.

You can be in a phone booth to make a call, or catch up with a co-worker over lunch in the cafeteria, or go to huddle rooms for privacy.

During the day, you may have the urge to work in different areas based on your mood, what you need to accomplish, and how much privacy you need.

Flexibility is about choice.

Companies that recognise total flexibility is the key to productivity and wellbeing will be able to compete for top talent and then serve them better so they’ll stay longer.

The argument isn’t over whether we have open or closed office spaces because they should be a combination of both.

What we all want is to be empowered to choose how, where, and when we do work instead of letting our organisations dictate that for us.

*Dan Schawbel is an author and the Managing Partner of Workplace Intelligence. He can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared at LinkedIn.

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