Open Space Offices – Good or Bad Idea?

Open space office You are sitting at your desk trying to compose an important email to send to a client. You are on a tight deadline. You are trying to concentrate. Suddenly, your co-worker sitting next to you in an open space office loudly blows his nose. Or, another co-worker sitting across from you in the same open space gets into a heated conversation with his girlfriend over the phone. Or, another co-worker walks over an employee two desks down and starts up a conversation about weekend plans. Or, another co-worker two rows down is shouting at the sales manager to gain his attention.

Distractions. The price some of us pay for working in an open space office.

Is an open space environment a good or bad idea?

This question came up recently in my head while I attended a panel discussion on “What Can We Learn from Billion Dollar Startup Workplaces?” The event was sponsored by WorkDesign Magazine and it was held at a semi-open space office of WeWork Wonder Bread Factory in Washington, D.C. (I say semi-open space because start-up companies actually work in small offices with glass walls. Yes, you can see people working when you walk by, but the offices do reduce some noise and offer some privacy. In addition, I notice phone booths available for people to make personal calls).

It appears that the trend these days for start-ups and some well-established companies is to adopt open space. For example, during the panel discussion, Emily Hollan White, Senior Director of Talent & Culture at Optoro, showed us a layout and photos of the new open space for her company. Optoro, a company that helps retailers sell their excess and returned inventory, moved into its new location last year. Ms. White explained that the open space environment encourages more collaboration among their employees.

I have worked in open space, semi-open space (with high cubicles) and close space environments where I had my own office. I even worked in my home office.

Let’s outline the pros and cons of working in an open space –

Pros of Open Space:

1). Collaboration – working in an open space encourages collaboration and teamwork among employees. Lack of walls and secrecy generates more camaraderie and increases information flow.

2). More space – from an employer’s point of view, he is saving money by not having to build offices; thus, he can hire more employees and increase his usage of floor space. This is a win-win for everyone – open space encourages more job growth for employees, and employers benefit by increasing their profit.

3). Big brother is watching you – from your employer’s point of view, he can make sure you are doing your job and not playing Solitaire or reading porn sites on your computer. (And frankly, if you have so much time on your hands to be playing computer games and reading x-rated sites, you are in the wrong job).

4). Cost savings – again, from an employer’s point of view, he is saving money by reducing heating and cooling costs. Also, there is a more communal atmosphere where the company can save money by having employees share resources, e.g., copiers, printers, fax machines (yes they still exist) and office supplies.

5). Sales pitches – from a sales point of view, you can listen to each other’s sales pitches and lines, and adopt or tailor them to your own needs. For example, here is a video clip from the “The Wolf of Wall Street” where Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), pitches a penny stock to an unsuspecting and naïve investor –

You notice that several salespeople in the background are listening to Mr. Belfort’s conversation. That actually happens more often than you think in sales. If someone is using a good line or phrase, you make note of it and use it with your clients.

(However, for the record,  I don’t recommend that you lie or mislead your clients).

Cons of Open Space:

1). Distractions – too much noise can make it difficult for employees to concentrate on their work, thus hurting productivity and increasing stress.

2). Lack of privacy – computer screens are easily visible and phone conversations are likely to be overheard. (However, my rule is this – always assume that your employer is monitoring your computer and phone activity, even if they claim that’s not the case. Sure, there is no harm in you checking the weather or the lunch menus at the local restaurants, but avoid sites that you know your employer will frown upon).

3). Germs – open space can encourage the spread of disease, especially colds, which could adversely affect attendance and actually hurt productivity for the company.

4). Not attracting good employees – some potential good job candidates may be discouraged from working in an open environment because they don’t feel it’s a good fit for them.

There have been several articles written in recent years discussing the open space working arrangements.

For example, published an article called “24 Reasons Your Open-Plan Office Sucks”. Based on the findings Journal of Environmental Psychology, the writer outlines several job dissatisfactions associated with open space including –

1). Increase distraction

2). Inability to have a private conversation

3). Perceived lack of visual privacy

4). Higher levels of distress, irritation, fatigue, headache and concentration difficulties

On the flip side, as reported in the Harvard Business Review, Paul Rosenberg and Kelly Campbell cited success in adopting open space at The Bridgespan Group in their article “An Open Office Experiment that Actually Worked”.

They reported that “the open layout has increased productivity, energy and connectedness.” But they admitted that “the journey from a traditional office to this new space where everyone shares workbenches, tables, lounge areas, and first-come-first-served private rooms took careful thought and planning.”

After much planning and design, they created an open space that included an open café, several small seating clusters for small group conversations, glass-walled conference rooms, and lockers for employees to keep personal items.

However, they did offer rooms for employees to use for private meetings, phone calls (but no private offices for management), and background noise masking, “so that conversations in the open are heard as mild hubbub rather than distinct, distracting words.”

The last two points are worth exploring more because I believe that The Bridgespan Group may have found a possible compromise and solution to make open space more tolerable for everyone.

1). The need for private offices – sometimes you need some privacy. Maybe you need to discuss something personal with your manager, or you need to meet with your HR manager. Based on my experience, all open space companies that I’ve worked for have provided private offices for those reasons and more.

2). Background noise masking – I went on a job interview recently where my potential employer told me that their company uses white noise to reduce the noise level. I think that’s a great idea. I only wish that some of my previous employers had adopted the same practice.

Below is a list of some companies that provide background noise masking tools and systems –

Sound Management Group, LLC
Steelcase QtPro
Cambridge Sound Management SONET Qt® (for individual personal spaces)
Speech Privacy Systems

Here are some other suggestions for improving working conditions in an open space environment –

1). Give potential employees a tour of your office – Do a “show and tell” of your office space with all potential employees when they arrive for an interview. Make sure they know upfront what type of office they are required to work in. Or better yet, have them sit with a salesperson for a few minutes to get the feel of the office. Better to learn early if a new employee can handle and adjust to an open space than to find out later that he can’t and have him quit. Let’s face it, not everyone can work in an open space. No shame. It happens.

2). Earplugs and Headphones – In sales, you can’t function wearing earplugs and headphones when you are trying to make calls. However, there are times when you need quiet in order to compose or respond to an important email or write a contract or RFP. In those situations, yes, I would recommend wearing earplugs and listening to music of your choice while writing. (Personally, I can’t concentrate while listening to music, so earplugs are my solution).

3). Enough space – there is space, but then there is too little space.  I’ve worked in an office where I felt the salespeople were sitting on top of each other. In addition, you were sometimes required to get up out of your chair to open the office door for deliveries or visitors, answer tickets, and do live chats  – all while trying to make and receive sales calls, and sending emails to your clients. At one job, I actually had to sit next to the company printer and got distracted by the constant churn of printing, while employees would walk to and from the machine. And to make matters worse, some employees would treat the printer like it was the proverbial company watering hole and stand around shooting the bull.

While I understand that some start-ups are running on tight budgets, you need to ensure that your employees have enough space to actually do their jobs. If not, the money you save on offices and utilities may be lost with high turnover.

sick woman in an office4). If you’re sick, go home – While I admire dedicated employees who are willing to come to work even when they are under the weather, you must be considerate of others – this is especially true in open space environments.  No one expects you to be a martyr for the cause – while falling on your sword is noble, you may end up slicing your co-workers in the process. Maybe employers need to give sick employees more leniency when it comes to docking their sick time or offer employees the flexibility of working from home when ill.

5). Encourage Employee Feedback – if you are moving into a new office, or switching from a traditional closed office to an open environment, seek employee feedback and comments. When employees feel their opinions are being considered, this encourages high morale and retention.

6). Enforce good manners – sure, we are all adults, but sometimes we need to be reminded of that. That means if someone is speaking loudly or hovering over you while you are working, take them aside and politely tell them to knock it off. Of, if things are really going badly, speak to your manager.

However, speaking to your manager may not always be possible.

I once worked in a semi-open environment at another job that was so tense for me that I actually quit a week after I joined the company. I was sharing a small office with the sales manager and a senior sales rep. I found myself sitting in a corner with a nice window view overlooking a beautiful small pond and park. At first, I liked the arrangement. But after a couple of days, I began regretting my decision. My manager was a good ol’ Southern boy who talked incessantly all day long. He would talk about cigars, his car, his former jobs, his former sales reps, his wife, and basically everything under the sun except work.

Being a veteran employee, he had a solid pipeline, great contacts and he could squeeze sales to meet his monthly quota with no difficulty. However, being a new sales rep, I knew I would have to work hard during my first year to build up my pipeline. I had to concentrate and stay focused. But my manager just wouldn’t leave me alone. Being a new employee, I couldn’t just tell him to shut up. Finally, frustrated and angry that I couldn’t do my job, I quit.

(I found out later that other salespeople quit for the same reason I did. One guy actually sent my manager a video of Donald Duck to drive home the point. The manager was so dense, he didn’t take the hint).

Conclusion: Whether you think that open space offices are a fad or not, more companies than ever are adopting the plan. While I believe that most employers want their employees to be productive, they need to adopt some common sense approaches when considering office arrangements. No employer wants to see high absenteeism or turnover of employees due to poor working conditions. While the bottom line is earning a profit, you still need to attract and retain good employees who will help you achieve that goal.

I believe open space is here to stay. I believe the pros outweigh the cons. Just make sure your employees will have a say in office arrangements, or the only open space you will be seeing are vacated desks and chairs.

What do you think? Please let me know if you have any comments to share.