‘It’s not one size fits all’: Why open office plans don’t work for everyone

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WATCH: Advantages of an open office plan – Mar 29, 2019

At her last job working for a non-profit, Tanya Hayles shared an open concept office with four other people — but that didn’t mean the space fostered teamwork.

“While I never expected privacy, there was a clear hierarchy in the company,” the Toronto resident told Global News. “The office environment, by being ‘open,’ led to a very false sense of family and community. We worked together in an open environment, but we were not a team.”

Hayles’ experience isn’t an uncommon one.

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According to a recent report in the Harvard Business Review“open, unbounded offices reduce [face-to-face] interaction with a magnitude… of about 70 per cent.”

Researchers tracked interactions between coworkers in two different company headquarters using sociometric badges (or sensors that can record whenever you come face to face with another person). They then compared the amount of interaction in a closed office plan and, after both companies shifted, to an open office plan.

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What they found was that, while the opening up of the office space was intended to increase face-to-face interaction, it actually increased the number of employees “choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones) while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”

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Hayles has since left that job to start her own two companies, but she still hasn’t pinned down the exact workspace that works best for her.

“Working from home — especially being newly self-employed — it can be hard to muster the discipline and self-motivation required to be productive,” said Hayles.

Now, she works in a co-working space, sub-leasing a desk within another company’s office. While she’s grateful for the human interaction, she also gets frustrated by the constant distractions.

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“Ironically, it is similar to my last place of employment in terms of set-up… [but that situation] was drastically different and had a negative impact on my mental health,” Hayles said.

Your work environment can have a huge impact on your psychological well-being, which is why it’s important that it’s a space you’re comfortable in.

“This is true for work and home life,” said Dr. Joti Samra, a registered psychologist and an expert on health and safety in the workplace. “Our environment has a significant impact on a number of things, [including] how relaxed we’re feeling [and] how motivated we might feel to do work.”
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Samra believes factors like colour, lighting, noise and privacy can all make a difference in how we feel about our workspace — and, by extension, how we feel about our work.

On one hand, an open office seems perfect for humans because we are “social creatures, fundamentally,” said Samra.

“It’s not in our normal state to be in a little box with barriers around us, not interacting with people. One of the things an open office can do is… pull us away for short periods from our computer.”

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According to Samra, we recharge best when we can fully shift cognitive sets. “An open office can make us…connect with somebody socially,” and that helps us destress.

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However, being pulled away from our work can also be a detriment to productivity — especially if you’re easily distracted. “An open concept can almost feel invasive. That need for privacy and focus can be jeopardized when we’re in a co-working environment.”

“It isn’t a fit for everybody,” said Samra.

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When choosing workspace elements, it really comes down to individual preference, personality and job description.

“This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Samra. “Not all kinds of work or work tasks are going to be well-matched with coworking spaces.”

It’s also very important to consider what you’re actually doing on a day-to-day basis.

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“When we think about the best workplaces, one of the things that they do well is that they take a very individualized approach to understanding employee needs… and the workspace becomes an extension of that,” Samra said.

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Her advice to organizations: Get input.

“Get input on tasks, get input on preferences, get input on the ‘why.’ What would be helpful? And thoughtfully consider both the pros and cons, given the unique demands of your workplace.”

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The open office trend can cause some ergonomic challenges

According to certified ergonomist Rachel Mitchell, an open office can also be detrimental to your physiological well-being.

“Employees are more likely to work directly from their laptops, resulting in forward bent head positions that are caused by the low viewing angle of a laptop screen,” Mitchell told Global News.

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“The recently revised [guidelines] recommend that laptops only be used for short duration work, and that employees dock their laptops with an external keyboard and mouse and either raise the laptop screen up on a stand or use an external monitor for any longer duration work.”

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This can be difficult to achieve in a shared workspace, where employees either share keyboards and mice or place their equipment in a locker or storage space at the end of each day.

“The hoteling set-up seems to discourage employees from setting up their workstations and adjusting their chairs properly since they may view the workstation as temporary,” said Mitchell. “The key to success is ensuring employees are provided with education on how to set up their workstations properly and are encouraged to do so.”

Noise is also an issue of ergonomics. “Where staff are collaborating or spending time on the phone… this can be distracting and cause detriments in productivity to surrounding employees,” said Mitchell. 

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Open offices may be more cost-efficient

One of the reasons companies are shifting to open office spaces could be because “people want their real estate to work harder for the organization,” said Caitlin Turner, director of design, interiors at HOK Toronto.

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Flexibility is key, and it depends on what the employees need from the space. For example, you might have a large sales team, several of whom spend more than half their time out of the office with clients.

Organizations approach it a variety of ways,” Turner said. In her role, Turner strives to understand what employees are doing and what the company is trying to achieve before making a design recommendation.

Increasingly common is a “sharing ratio,” which Turner described as a “flexible, choice-based environment with a variety of settings” within.

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It’s less a shift away from private spaces and more a shift towards flexibility, said Turner.

“Everybody, no matter what point they’re at in the organization or in their career, needs private or heads-down space throughout the day. But maybe not the whole day,” Turner said.

“By democratizing those spaces, everybody can choose where they work, [which] creates employee empowerment. And when employees feel empowered to make those choices… we actually find their engagement, their productivity and the level of innovation increases.”
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It’s the responsibility of individual companies to find what works best for its employees

Prior to recommending a design, Turner uses a variety of research tools to determine the day-to-day activities of a company’s employees.

“We ask them a variety of questions in a variety of ways. Even within an organization, there are a variety of teams that work differently throughout the day,” said Turner.

Our job as designers is to really find out what they’re trying to accomplish during the day and design the settings that best support that function.”

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Turner echoes Samra’s sentiments about the importance of extensive research so that employers know what their employees want and need from their office.

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“Jumping into a… new type of workspace without the data to back [it up] is very risky,” said Turner. “They might have to go through the research phase to really understand the outcomes.”

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