Tear Down Those Walls?

As more organizations move away from cubicles to an open office environment, they need to figure out how to implement such a configuration in a way that doesn't negatively affect employee performance— or drive them to quit.

Some employees don’t mind—and some even enjoy—a little white noise and face-to-face camaraderie with colleagues to help them focus on their tasks at hand in the workplace. “As communities are forming via technology such as social media, we’re realizing just how important it is for us to connect with one another and to collaborate more with each other, and those cube walls get in the way of that,” says Shawn Murphy, co-founder and CEO of Switch and Shift.

For some employees, though, open office environments can lead to distractions and less work accomplished. Indeed, a 2013 study found that almost half of surveyed workers in open offices were bothered by losing sound privacy, and 30 percent reported a lack of visual privacy, both of which created work focus problems.

With The Washington Post reporting that 70 percent of companies are incorporating some level of open office space and a CoreNet survey projecting a decrease in individual worker space from 225 square feet in 2010 to 100 square feet by 2017, organizations need to figure out how to implement such a configuration in a way that doesn’t negatively affect employee performance— or drive them to quit.

Introvert vs. Extrovert

Understanding how introverts and extroverts experience an open office is the first step to see how productivity is affected. Although not apparent at first glance, open offices can benefit both types of employees. “The benefit for extroverts in an open office is that they’re surrounded by people and stimulation, which they love and is motivating for them. The benefit for introverts is that they are forced to interact with others, whereas they might otherwise ‘hole up’ by themselves, so they’re more likely to have ‘accidental collisions’ of ideas,” explains Dorie Clark, adjunct professor, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

That said, understanding how open offices might negatively affect staff is where the majority of the focus should be. “The drawback for extroverts is that an open office might be too stimulating; there is so much going on that it may be hard for them to slow down and focus on important projects they need to get done,” notes Clark. “If your company has an open office, it’s important to know whether a particular job candidate will do well in that environment.”

According to Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations LLC, the interview process can provide great insight into a candidate’s ability to work well in an open office. Menlo Innovation’s three-part hiring process helps determine a candidate’s work style to see if a new hire is a cultural fit for an open office:

Stage 1: In a group of up to 50, candidates are tested on their soft skills. Presented with a basic handwriting task, candidates are paired with another candidate to see how well they can hold a conversation and work together on solving a problem. Can the pair share and keep a conversation going? This task is repeated two more times with different partners.

Stage 2: The next step involves a one-day trial, pairing the candidate with one employee in the morning and a different employee in the afternoon.

Stage 3: The final interview step is a three-week, 40-hourper- week contract that pairs candidates with a partner in their respective field (a programmer with a programmer, for example).

Sheridan credits the consistent and continued acclimation efforts for his employees and new hires in the open office environment with why they function so well in it. “It isn’t one day or one hour or one lunch a week you’re going to learn about our system,” he says. “The very first minute you’re in our office, you’re immersed in our system. The team is in charge of the space, and they choose to push the tables together.

“Because everybody here works in pairs, two people and one computer, working at the same task,” Sheridan adds, “even though we’re in an open environment, because we’re collaborating like this, it’s sort of like being in a noisy coffee shop. There could be noise surrounding us, but it’s not impacting us because we’re focusing attention on each other and the work.”

Make Accommodations

Clark says that companies with open offices who find candidates who may not be a perfect fit for this environment can still accommodate hires who provide a complimentary skill set to the organization’s goals. “I don’t think that should determine whether or not you hire them. It’s like saying you have an office with six-foot ceilings, so you can only hire candidates who are 5’ 11” or shorter,” Clark says. “The best organizations hire the most competent people and then adapt around them, not the other way around. If someone hates open offices, it’s good to know that, but then find a way to let them telecommute or work a few days a week from home.”

The Washington Post found that a pure open office design can be modified to let workers find a balance between the percentage of work requiring increased individual focus and taking advantage of group work. Some office designers set aside soundproof workstations for 5 percent of office space. Other ways to reduce distraction include Steelcase’s pod, for example, that has a modifiable desk and seat with partial partitions on the back and side to mimic those of a college library.

Setting a common set of expectations for employees is essential to help them understand each other’s work styles and modes to ensure there’s adequate means to focus. “If you can set up a signal (wearing headphones, for instance), then you can indicate to people that you’re concentrating and they should stay away for a while so you can get your most important work done,” says Clark. “And, of course, it’s important to provide ‘respite rooms’ where people can go for private meetings or phone calls. No one—even extroverts—wants to have every moment of their lives scrutinized 24/7.”

Survey Says

For five years, design and architecture company Gensler surveyed individuals from the world's top companies to understand their work patterns and work environments through its Workplace Performance Index (WPI) tool. The resulting database of more than 90,000 people from 155 companies across 10 industries represents tens of thousands of data points on how people work today and how workplace environments do— and don't— support them.

The WPI's unexpected revelation is that the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration; it's actually individual focus work. Beginning in 2008, 16 percent more respondents indicated a lack of privacy as the top reason they can't focus on their work. Gensler also found that 55 percent of employees' work required individual focus in 2012, compared to 48 percent of the work in 2007.

Gensler identified four work modes that are highly interconnected, with focus as the primary component and the key predictor of all other work mode effectiveness:

  1. FOCUS: Individual work involving concentration and attention devoted to a particular task or project.

  2. LEARN: Acquiring knowledge of a subject or skill through education or experience.

  3. COLLABORATE: Working with another person or group— in person, via technology, or a combination— to achieve a goal.

  4. SOCIALIZE: Interactions that create trust, common bonds and values, collective identity, collegiality, and productive relationships.

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