29 May 2018

The relationship between open plan offices and productivity

Open plan offices are a little bit like caviar, you either love them or you hate them. Yes, getting used to a shared space might be a bit of a hassle at first but if utilized correctly an open plan office will become a valuable asset to your workforce.

After the initial hype which turned the majority of today’s open plan offices, the trend was then met with some resistance. Certain publications have been very outspoken against the bigger drawbacks of this design like the fact that ceaseless distractions decrease worker productivity and that employees are twice as likely to get sick. Others explain that simply cramming people in one room is not enough. In order to work its magic an open plan office needs to be set up just right.

Feeling that you belong

Just like it feels weird driving someone else’s car, working all day in a manufactured environment can hinder your productivity. To get in the zone and minimize distractions an employee needs not only personal but also personalized space. An individual’s workplace should reflect their self-image which will in turn give them a sense of belonging. Developing an emotional attachment to your work environment is part of a process called place identity.

Knowing that you’re playing a role in the grand scheme of things can make all the difference. A strong place identity means that employees feel more engaged and enthusiastic about their work as well as feeling more attached to their company. Low levels of place identity on the other hand can give your team a bad case of teen angst that will turn the company into an oppressor and the workplace into a prison.

A simple fix to this issue is letting your workers personalize their desks. Adding family photos, memorabilia or personal trinkets can go a long way. An even better solution would be to encourage everyone to participate in the arrangement and decoration of communal spaces such as kitchenettes or huddle rooms.

Leading by example

Free snacks and pretty pictures mean nothing if your top level management keeps sitting in an ivory tower. When implementing huge changes like transitioning to an open plan office, company leaders should set the example. Sacrificing your private office to sit with the rest your team is a good place to start.

When you let go of your corner office remember that people are looking up to you. Showing negative emotions such as frustration or resistance to change will affect your team’s feelings. Again, think about the relationship between parents and children. If you don’t eat your vegetables how can you expect your kids to like them?

It’s all about finding the right balance

So you are sitting with the team now, your desk already features a small shrine of pet pictures and you’ve collectively plastered the fridge with novelty magnets, now what? Well, the last step to take when dealing with open office spaces is to introduce dedicated areas.

You need to provide a place where employees can escape to when trying to flee from constant interruptions. Your office should ideally be divided into three sections: a shared open-work space to fill your team with energy, small private offices free from distractions and a number of conference-style rooms for discussions to reduce noise in the open spaces.

This setup accommodates different stages of an individual’s workflow. Use conference rooms for brainstorming sessions and meetings, then keep the ideas flowing while working in the main open plan space, and finally polish up your project in a small private office.

Be smart about it

In order to utilize all these bookable spaces you will need a proper room scheduler. Luckily for us we already have an in-house solution! Joan, our meeting room booking system, doesn’t just help us manage our office space – she gives feedback as well.

Joan sends out a report about our workplace trends once a week. She includes information such as meeting space usage and hours spent on meetings. Just from this simple overview we noticed that different rooms are being booked and used in a different way.

Our offices host three smaller conference rooms: the White Room, the Jungle Room and TheBrain. Our most booked meeting room is the White Room which is commonly employed for team meetings, client meetings, briefings, workshops, on the spot meetings and basically any event that requires a private meeting area. Surprisingly, the ratio between on the spot bookings and bookings done via calendar is almost 50%. In other words the White Room is used both for spontaneous occurrences and prearranged events. The complete opposite can be said about TheBrain which shows a 100% calendar booking ratio for each of the past three weeks.

Joan also lets you know how much time is spent on these meetings and how frequently are your dedicated spaces used. Our conference rooms are currently occupied between 40% and 70% of the time, but 15 to 30 of those meetings are usually unattended.

Collectively we now spend about 200 hours on meetings per week which can be a scary number if you feel like talking is a waste of time. But utilizing your space and time efficiently is key when dealing with open plan offices. The most important attitude an employee can adopt is working with instead of working against this new environment. Appreciation for the open plan design is an acquired taste – just like a refined palate, it only comes with time and experience.