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  • Lacy Starling

People Hate Open Offices

Last week, I had a phone conversation with a friend of mine who works at a Big Four accounting firm. We were discussing office layouts, as I'm in the middle of an office redesign for my company, and she had some strong opinions. Apparently, in the last 18 months, in order to "appeal to Millenials," her firm has migrated to an open-office concept. And they didn't go halfway. They went full open office—they are using a "hoteling" system where nobody even has a designated desk anymore, and you just grab whatever space is available when you get there in the morning—and they made the system apply to absolutely everyone, whether they are in the office 10% of the time or 100% of the time, and no matter the nature of the work they do.


It's been a disaster.


Long-time executive assistants, the backbone of any large organization, have been taking early retirement offers in droves. My colleague, who travels a great deal, has stopped coming into the office altogether because it's such a rugby scrum to find a desk. She'll drive into the city where her home office is located, pay for parking, and walk the five blocks to the building only to realize that the last spaces available are the coffin-sized Just-In-Time rooms. (Sidebar: they refer to these as "jit rooms" and that's horrible. No one wants to work in anything called a "jit room.")


It's a classic case of a company glomming onto a trend in office design or culture without thinking through how their organization works, or what will make their people most productive and happy. And they aren't alone. At a family gathering last week, every single person of working age I talked to had been shoved into an open office recently, and every single one of them had issues with it.


So where does this leave companies trying to create collaborative, exciting offices? How are you supposed to make your space appealing, but still let people get their work done? If you are thinking about how to design your company's new office or how to re-design the space you are currently in, here's a few things to consider.


Who Are You?

Not you, of course, but who is your company? What is your culture, and how can you create a work environment to support that? There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a more traditional work environment of cubicles and offices if your company is more formal. Some industries and roles simply don't lend themselves to a casual, funky setup. This is just like when my accounting firm, which I love dearly, started making all their email signatures lowercase and fuchsia. I get that they were trying to appear more "friendly" and appeal to a younger demographic. (Or at least I think that's what they were trying to do.) But it is jarring for me to open an email about a possible acquisition and see the Director of Mergers & Acquisitions' name all cutesy and lowercase. It's like he's signing his emails with an emoji.


There are just certain industries that need more a formal presentation. Law firms. Accounting firms. Morticians. People don't want a fun, wide-open space for the person who is responsible for writing their contracts, keeping the IRS at bay or burying their beloved grandmother. They want gravitas and seriousness. They want offices with doors that close for privacy in difficult moments. That's not to say the space can't be modern, or warm, or inviting, but there probably shouldn't be a kegerator and a slide.


What Do You Do?

To build on the previous example, when designing a work space, you must consider the work being done. Do your people have to have quiet, confidential conversations with clients? Are you asking people to do lots of intensely focused work? Do you work in constantly shifting teams based on project flow?


The answers to those questions will create vastly different work spaces. Firms handling confidential or sensitive matters need to provide their employees with privacy. If I walk into my lawyer's office and see his colleagues dishing out advice on how another client can beat the extortion rap they are facing while sitting at a communal work table, I'm not going to feel great about sharing my own issues with her. Additionally, you must consider the legal ramifications of having those conversations out in the open, like if they could potentially violate a non-disclosure agreement or affect attorney-client privilege.


The nature of the work you are asking your employees to do is also important. If you have a team of people who are head-down grinding through highly detailed processes, an open office can be a disastrous distraction. You'll either have everyone wearing headphones and hoodies all day to concentrate, or you'll have much lower productivity. On the opposite side, if you have a highly interactive or creative group that relies on constant feedback and input, an office with high cubicle walls or closed office doors will kill the workflow and result in a much lower quality of work.


You must also consider that different people in your company do different work, and need different spaces. For a long time, our accounting department was right next to the coffee machine, and it drove them NUTS. Everyone who made coffee wanted to chat, and they just wanted to be able to concentrate on processing the payables and receivables, and not have to be interrupted every five minutes. We eventually flipped the entire office so accounting sat by the back wall, in a quiet corner, and our sales team was next to the coffee machine, since they were collaborating all day anyhow.


Who Do You Hire?

Talking about sales versus accounting departments leads us to another important issue—what kind of people do you hire? If you are hiring a team of incredibly extroverted, collaborative people, locking them away in high-walled cubicles will crush their souls. And if you hire people for whom small talk and day-long interactions with others is exhausting, putting them in a space with no boundaries to conversation will send them home every day completely drained and dreading the next day with its eight hours of non-stop chit-chat.


Sitting down to think about your hiring process and what traits you look for in new hires in each department can give you a great deal of insight into how to construct an office for them. Most companies have multiple departments with different hiring characteristics, and if you only take into account your largest (or most favorite) departments, you'll be handicapping everyone else in the company who has a different role. (And they'll understand immediately that the office wasn't designed with them in mind, which is a blow most organizations' morale can't absorb.)


What Do Your People Want?

The single biggest mistake I see companies make (and the mistake that the Big Four firm in the introduction made) is not asking their own employees what they'd like to see in a new office. Most organizations, when undertaking a re-design of the work space, or a new office build-out, put someone in charge of the project and never seek input from the rank and file. They simply do what the executive team, the project manager, or the CEO wants and figure everyone else will just fall in line.


It has never been easier to take the pulse of your organization on these types of issues. I'm not saying that you include everyone on the selection of the carpet tile or window shades, but sending out a survey asking your employees what they'd love to see in their ideal office space is as easy as dropping two or three questions into an online survey and letting the results roll in. Heck, we just sent an email out and had people respond when we were beginning our redesign process. We had 20 responses in two days (and we only have 30 employees). No one was afraid to share their fondest wishes with us about how they wanted the office to look and feel, and what perks would be most valuable to them.


And yes, there will always be that person who says they want a pool on the roof, but you'll also get really great, reasonable suggestions, like having more windows in the breakroom, or a bigger conference room so they can have meeting with more than six people. If you've been upfront with your people all along about what's important and what isn't, they'll consider the budget when making suggestions. Most of the ideas we received were small, and while there were some we couldn't accommodate (no office building has windows that open), we worked as many of the reasonable ones in as we could, and let people know when what they asked for wasn't feasible.


The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, I'm pretty sure we've all been seduced by the glossy photo spreads about Google's corporate campus, or Apple's new, giant office building. We see all these bells and whistles and we think that if we don't provide nap pods and a cafeteria with unlimited food and an office without a single wall, people won't want to come work for us. And in a tight labor market, that can be scary, and can push companies to try to shoe-horn the latest trends in office design into their workspace out of desperation.


But what people truly want is to work for a company that takes them into consideration, provides a great culture and interesting work to do, and gives them a space that's conducive to that work. If you have a good company, your employees won't need exposed brick walls and a gourmet coffee bar to stay. (The flip side is that all the gourmet coffee in the world won't keep people at a crappy company.) Just be intentional about the office you create, and take your culture, your work and your people into consideration when you do it and you'll be fine.


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