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It’s been around for years already, but the open office design concept continues to gain traction, steadily growing in popularity throughout Corporate America. In fact, more than 70% of employees in the United States have worked in an open office environment since 2015.
Though the benefits of the open office concept can be felt throughout a company, this layout especially attracted attention within specific departments, like marketing and sales, where an open environment allowed their teams to bounce ideas off one another and share information more efficiently.
And over the years support grew beyond teams and departments, as even senior staff and executives started to endorse the open office strategy as they saw an increase in communication and team cohesion. It also provided them, as leaders, with a better, clearer picture of what was going on within their company walls.
For years, this trend has enabled communication, teamwork, and approachability . That was, of course, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which created a mass exodus in workplaces around the globe and now has left some afraid that an open office could be a hotbed for infection.
According to a recent survey, safety is the number once concern employees have about working in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. But with so many benefits gained from its adoption and 25% of U.S. adults fully vaccinated, the open office could return to popularity and continue cultivating its place in the business world — once it's safe to resume.
However, one doesn’t have to look too far to find criticisms of the open office layout. And the two glaring hurdles that must be cleared before every department within a company is on board with the open office concept can be summed up in two words: distractions and privacy.
The bottom line is that an open office environment increases distractions and decreases privacy. And according to some scientific research, that affects employees' job satisfaction, which in turn affects employee productivity. And this is the antithesis of the entire open office mission.
The benefits of the open office concept are evident, so rather than dismissing the open office plan entirely, our recommendation is to focus on a solution to better mitigate distractions and secure employee privacy, thus enabling all employees to thrive in this environment.
A couple years ago, our friend, Rick Robinson — a member of the legal department at a medium-sized software company that has adopted this modern open office approach — showcased a unique and effective way his company balanced the need for an open, collaborative environment with the need for privacy and a more subdued atmosphere. The answer they found is what his company termed “breakout rooms.”
For a high-level perspective, Rick painted a picture of what his company looked like. His company included about 800 employees locally, in their seven-floor building, plus another 200 in another location. The environment was aggressively open, with not even the CEO in an exclusive office. Teams sat together, with departments set apart by only a few feet. Rick stands by this layout, declaring that the open office strategy was a tremendous benefit to the company at that time. He also added that this layout, alone, didn't accommodate every need.
"We were running into issues where the open office layout was actually counter-productive. For exactly the reasons you'd expect: privacy...and focus."
“For our legal team, as well as our accounting and finance departments, we were running into issues where the open office layout was actually counter-productive,” admitted Rick. “For exactly the reasons you’d expect — privacy and the sometimes desperate need to be able to focus.”
This inspired the birth of the breakout room.
Breakout rooms are bookable rooms, available to all employees who need a moment, an hour, or an afternoon for a private phone call, a “closed-door” meeting, or a quiet environment for focused and uninterrupted work time. Some rooms are designed specifically to serve individual employees, on a first-come, first-served basis; other breakout rooms are for groups of two or more and require scheduling the rooms beforehand, reserving them for specific times and events.
“While it’s nice to be right there with your team and for departments to be able to chat face to face about certain things, I personally do a lot of reading and writing,” said Rick. “Our office has a fun, open atmosphere, but sometimes it gets loud, making it hard to ask questions and talk with someone on my team, even though they’re right next to me. And when I need to read a contract it’s really difficult to focus unless I go into one of the meeting rooms and remove myself from everyone else in order to find some quiet and be able to concentrate.”
Office workers lose 86 minutes a day due to distractions. (Source: Steelcase)
Rick isn’t alone in his observation. In a survey of more than 10,000 workers across 14 countries, key findings showed that office workers lose 86 minutes a day due to distractions. If solutions aren’t provided to lessen these distractions, many employees will find themselves unmotivated, unproductive, and overly stressed.
It’s no surprise that having an open office layout can allow noise levels to rapidly escalate. That’s why one of the greatest benefits to breakout rooms is that they allow for focus and concentration.
While distractions may have the negative effect of less productivity from employees, a breakout room creates a more dynamic space where people have the freedom to enjoy peace and quiet or chat to their colleagues in specially designed zones. These rooms not only mitigate distractions, but are effective in helping boost the mood or morale of your employees.
When it comes to job satisfaction and job performance, research shows that privacy influences everything. And whether it’s environmental privacy or psychological, the question is not whether we need privacy in our office spaces, but how to configure the space so that workers can move to the right type of environment for whatever task they happen to be working on.
Rick commented that he was regularly dealing with confidential matters (employees, vendors, business partners, etc.) and he needed to be separated from others who might be listening. To complete his work assignments, he needed to talk in confidence, and for such moments, the open layout didn't allow that. Breakout rooms enabled Rick and his colleagues to work on private matters discreetly, without preoccupation of an unintentional audience overhearing these conversations.
"Every employee needs privacy at one point or another, whether for work or personal matters."
In addition to privacy needs in the workplace, nobody is immune to their personal life carrying over into the work environment, and there will always be occasions when employees need privacy to care for personal matters as well. Rick acknowledges, “Every employee needs privacy at one point or another, whether for work or personal matters. The breakout rooms are a necessity in these moments, making the experience of privacy appropriately personal.”
Simply allowing more personal control over the physical workspace (e.g. open office or breakout rooms) and providing easy access to meeting places encourages group cohesiveness and job satisfaction.
And knowing there are private, quiet rooms available, where you won’t get kicked out when you’re focused, promotes a strong psychological sense of privacy and control, and can keep employees from worrying about a workplace environment where they are abruptly shoved out of a space or invaded by sudden, interruptive discussions. Knowing they can focus and complete tasks that require concentration streamlines productivity.
A powerful component to instilling control over the physical workspace is having an immediate, yet comprehensive view of what rooms and equipment are available. Facilitating the coordinating and scheduling of these rooms empowers employees, and gives greater control to each individual for securing the area that will meet their needs by allowing them to decide the environment that best meets their task.
Space booking solutions, such as Teem's conference room digital signage, provide real-time statuses for the meeting rooms on your floor, building or campus — either by list or a dynamic Maps mode — and allows your entire team to see what rooms and capabilities are available. Additionally, with Teem’s Mobile App, you can find and book the ideal meeting room from wherever you are.
With workplace analytics software that compiles your data, you can evaluate past performance and stay on top of your most important metrics. Driven by data analytics for the workplace, you can generate insights that show how your workplace is operating and find ways to improve the experience for your workforce.
Conduct a workplace analysis to understand employee behavior in the office — including space utilization and occupancy, meeting details including attendance, duration, size, etc., information about your visitors, and resource popularity.
By examining how your spaces are being used and how many people are working from the office, you can inform future workplace decisions and make the adjustments necessary to best support everyone.
This kind of dynamic functionality provides access for all employees and promotes the cohesive nature that the open office philosophy embodies.
As companies return to the office, many desks and rooms will remain unused. Meanwhile, real estate costs are continuing to rise. Unfortunately, to get executives on board with the changes that could help address those challenges, IT leaders need the right tools — and enough time — to capture utilization data and then visualize it from dashboards and reports that are easy to understand.
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