Coping with the Open Office Plan

The verdict is in. Open office plans are a trendy disaster. Before we dive into how to engage your teams in spite of their office environment, let’s explore what we’ve learned in the past decade. Thanks to a number of Silicon Valley giants who boasted about their innovative office floor plans, the fad to dissolve the existing cubicle/structured office design really took hold in the early 2000’s. Organizations worldwide took notice and sought to replicate the cost savings, modern look, and casual vibe pioneered by Google, Facebook, Netflix, etc.

The term “open office design” includes several variations including assigned workspaces with low/no walls, completely open spaces with no assigned desks, and semi-open plans where HR and Legal still retain closed workspaces. In 2017, 70% of offices in the US had low or no cubicle walls. Ever since then, there have been two camps- one that adamantly believes the open design promotes collaboration, and then there’s everyone else that loathes the design.

Opinions aside, the data tell a clear story. Open offices erode productivity, reduce job satisfaction, and increase the number of sick days used in comparison to offices with more traditional privacy-centered designs. Employees report being distracted by the noise-level in the elbow-to-elbow workspace and find it difficult to hold sensitive conversations and resort to going on a huddle room scavenger hunt for privacy. While the open office design concept was pursued with the best intentions, what many organizations failed to consider was the existing organizational culture. In companies that are already collaborative, relaxed, and warm, the open office plan is often welcomed. In most organizations, though, privacy is valued. In a culture where being assigned the corner office is a sign of authority/achievement, having even cubicle walls torn down and forcing executives to sit in an environment reminiscent of a call center is certainly counter to the personal vision leaders hold for their career.

Like it or not, even if the open office experiment was a failure, the fad will likely die a slow death. The same executives who signed off on the open office floor plan and related expenses would need to swallow their pride and admit defeat before transitioning to a more privacy-enabled design. Additionally, the re-design cost alone is likely to be a barrier. It’s more likely that the open office organizations will keep trying to force the square peg to fit the round hole. Because if Facebook can do it, there’s no reason why every other company can’t, right? It is more likely that leaders will feel pressure to convince their teams to accept the design with a positive attitude.

Here are 5 ways leaders can cope with an open office environment.

  1. Be positive. Like everything else in leadership, your emotions are contagious. When a leader conveys their disapproval of a plan, the team is likely to adopt the same negative/cynical feelings. Naturally, though, there’s a balance. The challenge to be authentic, yet realistic, can be considerable in a situation like this. If your team knows you value privacy, then it may erode their trust if you suddenly become a cheerleader for the open office. Instead, be vocal about the handful of benefits you perceive with the open office plan and be more discrete about your reservations.
  2. Communicate your expectations. One major concern employees often raise regarding the open office environment is the physical proximity to their boss. Some feel that with the boss within earshot of every interaction, they must always be “on.” Employees fear being the first one to leave or the last one to arrive each day. As a leader, be clear about your expectations for the team. It may help to alleviate their concerns by reminding them that you’re not interested in eavesdropping on every conversation and that you, too, need to stay focused to be productive.
  3. Take one for the team. In some open office plans, the leadership team sits together in one area of the building. Walls or no walls, this still signals a hierarchy that conflicts with the “we’re all in this together” vibe of open office design. If possible, choose to sit closer to your team instead of isolating yourself in the leadership corner.
  4. Be flexible. Understand the unique personalities and preferences of your team and be understanding of their needs. When possible, be flexible with offering work-from-home days. Or suggest that when employees are working on a particularly complex project, they’re welcome to book a conference room for themselves for the day. There is no one size fits all solution to office design, so offering creative solutions to match the needs of employees will be a welcome option.
  5. Headphones. At the end of the day, you’re still responsible for the results of your team. When productivity is suffering due to distractions, you must take action. If all else fails, buy the team a set of noise-cancelling headphones. You’ll likely become the most popular leader in the open office.