The Open-Space Debate

The following originally appeared in Human Resource Executive Online on October 2, 2017, and features comments from OperationsInc CEO David Lewis. To view the original article, please click here

by Carol Patton

A German team of architects introduced open-plan office spaces back in the 1950s. They believed tearing down office walls would encourage employee communication and stimulate creativity.

Decades later, however, companies are not so sure the idea delivers what its proponents claim. Critics and recent surveys highlight concerns over lower employee productivity and lack of privacy while supporters point to innovation and stronger employee relationships.

One thing’s for sure: People either love the concept or hate it. HRE discovered why by interviewing two business leaders associated with the HR profession and asking them to share their experiences with open-space environments — the good, the bad and the unexpected.

Pythons, Tires and Whales

As global leader of workforce development at SEI, a global financial-services and technology company in Oaks, Pa., Colleen Stratton has worked in an open-office space for 10 years. While it took some time getting used to, like figuring out how to occasionally give off “do not disturb vibes” to approaching employees, she says, there’s no turning back.

SEI, with 3,242 employees today, introduced the design in 1996. The company’s Oaks campus includes 10 buildings with open floor plans that range in size from 6,200 square feet to 22,250 square feet.

To mask ambient office noise, white noise — a combination of all different frequencies of sound — is piped through the air conditioning and heating systems. To help absorb sounds, the floors are constructed out of recycled tires.

The first employee at SEI to surrender his office was the last one most people would think of — the company’s chairman and CEO, Alfred (Al) West Jr. He believed this office design would send a clear message to employees — that everyone and their ideas are equally important.

But the benefits go beyond warm and fuzzy. Stratton says that the company also needed to assemble and disassemble teams “very regularly and rapidly at no cost.” So every employee was issued the same style chair, desk on wheels, computer and phone that could be moved anywhere on campus. Coils or python cords hang from the ceiling in every building and pivot at all angles so employees can disconnect and reconnect their computers in any space or building.

“You just unplug and wheel your desk over [to your new space] and plug back in,” Stratton says, adding that entire teams have moved their desks to different buildings on campus. “When you get there, you figure the best way to configure your space and reassemble your desk.”

Among the benefits of an open-space design are on-the-job-training opportunities. They’re everywhere, Stratton says.

“When I hire a new recruiter to come on my team, [if] they don’t know how to talk about SEI to job candidates or reach out to them, they can just listen to me on the phone for a couple of hours,” Stratton says. “Once they start doing it, I can discreetly listen to them without forcing myself on their calendar and help them tweak and adjust. It definitely decreases the learning curve, especially for junior people coming into the workplace. They develop their confidence a lot more quickly. . . .”

Not to mention that she can intervene right on the spot if someone is having difficulty speaking with employees on the phone or face-to-face. Some workers also spend time observing co-workers in other departments to get a feel for what it would be like working in this job or that one.

Since the company’s leaders work in the open the same as everyone else, employees observe them in action. They pick up techniques, share ideas and solicit their advice. Perhaps just as unique, the organization eliminated all administrative-assistant positions so employees could directly connect with senior executives at any time, even book meetings with them.

Perhaps Stratton’s favorite aspect of an open floor plan is the company’s art collection consisting of photographs, paintings and sculptures placed throughout the buildings. Who wouldn’t admire a monolithic whale constructed out of boiled white wool or giant-sized shoes made out of licorice that even Dorothy would trade for her ruby slippers? If at least two employees in the same workspace like one piece of art, it’s moved to their area to enjoy.

Still, there’s that nagging privacy issue.

Stratton positions her desk against a wall without windows so no one can peer over her shoulder to gaze at her computer screen. She says her area is confidential and includes her HR team and the chief financial officer, who form a large circle with their desks. But if more privacy is needed — like during salary negotiations — anyone can book one of the estimated 20 conference rooms on campus via Microsoft Outlook or by contacting one of the company’s two on-site conference centers.

As more jobs become virtual, Stratton suspects office spaces will shrink and the future will see more open space being shared by employees.

Despite their benefits, she says, such spaces aren’t for everyone. When people interview, she says, they self-select out if they can’t function in an open environment.

Meanwhile, Stratton, who recalls once working in a beautiful office, has no regrets. Open spaces, she says, promote innovation, energize people and build strong relationships. As an HR leader, she can’t imagine trading that for just four walls.

Buyer’s Remorse

David Lewis, president and CEO at OperationsInc, an HR outsourcing and consulting practice in Norwalk, Conn., has seen his fair share of clients with open-office spaces revert back to mixed-use office space.

“At the end of the day, people who work in open work spaces start looking for closed work spaces,” he says. “While the open layout is conducive to collaboration, the benefits do not outweigh the detriments.”

The big concerns are loss of personal space and privacy. Some of his clients who converted to an open layout allocated a set amount of space, including storage, for each employee. But some workers complained that their area was significantly smaller than their former workspace and they had no place to store their books or files, which created a huge burden on some departments, he says.

From there, things only grew worse. At some organizations, a handful of departments routinely held meetings in specific rooms or conference areas that were designated for public use. Charts or diagrams hung from the walls and flip charts were often left in the room because they were too cumbersome to schlep back and forth.  These rooms were informally claimed as that department’s own space, and given nicknames like the “marketing huddle room.”

Many employees also found it difficult to concentrate and block out activities in their peripheral vision — so much so that they were wearing earbuds or hats to drown out nearby chatter.

“This was a distraction fest,” says Lewis. “A lot of companies had to change their policies about [listening to] music and wearing earbuds because it became such a necessity for people.”

Problems kept mounting. Another was confidentiality.

“There’s no easy way for [managers] to have a discussion that evolves into some level of emotion, whether it’s with a customer or employee,” he says, adding that this is the biggest flaw of open floor plans. “Now, every time managers are on the phone and don’t want that conversation to be overheard by other people, they have to duck into one of the corner spaces or conference spaces or shared rooms.”

After dealing with such issues, Lewis says, many of his clients redesigned their floor plans to offer both individual offices and open areas.

Because of the sensitive nature of their job, Lewis believes HR professionals should not work in open-space environments, especially if the room resembles an assembly line of long rows of tables where employees carve out their own workspace. C-suite executives, employees in accounting, legal and new-product development work also should not work in open spaces, he says. How many in these departments would feel comfortable viewing sensitive information out in the open? he asks.

Then, he continues, there are public companies in which confidentiality is a fiduciary responsibility involving certain projects or initiatives.

“The idea that you have to work that hard to keep that information secret versus just putting yourself in a freakin’ room with four walls makes no sense to me,” says Lewis. A good alternative, he says, might be placing professionals from the same department such as HR or accounting in one big room.

Besides, many employees don’t like putting their back to foot traffic where they can be “snuck up on,” he says, adding that an open floor plan might also limit your candidate pool, since the ability to work effectively in this type of environment is a skill and perhaps an acquired taste.

Since Lewis understands the value of open spaces, namely collaboration, he believes creating mixed spaces is the way to go versus an all-or-nothing approach.

His own workplace, where more than half of his 60 employees typically work on any given day, reflects a mixed design of individual offices, where people can concentrate and work privately, and open spaces for teams to collaborate or brainstorm ideas. He says no one is a slave to any specific location and all employees can choose where they want to work.

Lewis believes future offices will follow this hybrid path. Both traditional offices and open spaces are needed, he says; otherwise, employers may unintentionally create a rift between employees who are relegated to open environments and those in traditional offices.

Meanwhile, he suggests that HR professionals considering an open design talk with peers at other organizations who work in open spaces so they can make an educated decision before diving into the deep end of the pool.

“This is about planning and assessment up front,” Lewis says. “If you do that, you won’t have the buyer’s remorse that a lot of companies have had over the last several years.”