The Great Open Office Experiment

For the past nine months, I have been engaged in an epic, unrelenting struggle. I have been battling with an open office floor plan. There is no dearth of articles decrying how the open floor plan is an evil, wrong-headed design that impinges on productivity or is just plain destroying our workplace. While I’d say that’s going a bit far, there are definitely challenges to growing in an open space while accommodating the work styles and preferences of a variety of people. We may have mixed feelings about the benefits of an open floor plan, but it’s what we have to work with, so how can we create an environment that is flexible enough to meet our collective needs? You will want to begin by attempting to understand the types of spaces people in the office need. With that in mind, you must then explore the possible methods of creating those spaces.

It is likely you will find you need to have spaces for private, quiet or focused individual-level work. You will also need social gathering spaces, small group meeting spaces and larger group or company-wide meeting spaces. If you are in an open office floor plan, you may not have enough actual rooms to accommodate all these needs.

You must begin by thinking of yourself as a researcher and the office occupants your subjects.  Your method -  naturalistic observation. This means you simply start off by observing what people actually do, not what they say they do. Is there a spot in the office people always gravitate toward? Is there a chair that no one ever sits in? Is there a room that never gets booked? See how the space is actually being used. When I started doing this, I realized that though I had set out a lovely set of tables in a sunny part of the office, the area was not at all being utilized.

That’s where some of the fun kicks in. Now you get to experiment! I began by putting something on one of the tables - a little zen garden. Maybe people would want to come to that space to decompress?  No takers. Then I realized I never saw anyone sitting in those chairs. I swapped them with some different chairs from another part of the office, and just like that, people were in that space all the time!

Embracing the mentality of a researcher will get you part way there, but discovering how to utilize your space will also come from understanding people’s work flows and work styles. Some people will have customer-facing roles and need to be on the phone or have meeting space where they can talk. Some will need quiet spaces to code or write free from distraction. This is where you really need to put your researcher hat on. The solutions that first pop to mind - like the popular phone booths - may not solve your problem or might not be solutions you have the space or funds to implement. While a phone booth might help delineate space for those who need to make phone calls, they aren’t necessarily going to work for the person who needs quiet space to focus and are rather large and costly.  So how do you accommodate these competing needs and constraints?

On this journey, I have tested a variety of solutions and learned to embrace there is no one right or perfect answer. I think ultimately it is a matter of trial and error, communication and being open as a group to finding the variety of solutions that will best work together.

This is where creativity and communication come into play. If you are able to get acoustical furniture (like the phone booths or various pods that are out there), this can help create separate physical spaces. If you don’t have the space or budget for this, all is not lost. You can easily carve out a section of the office by carefully placing rugs and plants - both of which are also helpful in absorbing sound. There are systems you can purchase for sound masking, acoustical panels that serve as art to hang on the walls or stand-alone panels that can close off an area. Another sound mitigation option is investing in some noise-canceling headphones and headsets for your group. Depending on your work culture, you can also encourage people to work from home or take meetings in nearby cafes.

For us, I have experimented with many of these things - moving furniture around, using rugs and plants to create areas, tested out noise-canceling headsets, led a forum to come up with our community standards for room booking and use and invited people to take advantage of working from home on days when they have numerous calls or need dedicated quiet space. I have also explored the vast array of acoustical furniture options out there. I have found success with some, while some didn’t quite work.

There is also a lot of basic communication you can do. Once you’ve seen how people tend to use space, you can broadcast which spaces should be considered quiet areas and which spaces should be booked for calls and meetings. You can also develop protocols for how your meeting spaces should be used. Lastly, you can open up the conversation so that people feel comfortable discussing their work styles. Being open about the options you are exploring and involving people in the process can do a lot to ease tension.

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