In Defense of the Open Office: The Case for the Hybrid Workplace

Business.com / Managing / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

The backlash against the open office is in full force. How can we keep the collaboration while giving employees the autonomy they need?

The once-trendy open office has taken quite a beating in the last few years. Huge, undivided rooms. Long tables lined up with laptops.

Not a wall in sight. Once the darling of agencies, startups, and big companies trying to be cool, the layout is now “destroying the workplace,” a “trap,” or quite simply, “dead.”

These articles and the hundreds like them cite multiple studies showing that contrary to their intent, open offices hinder productivity, produce a sense of emotional isolation, and basically get in the way of anybody getting anything done.

I’m not here to debate those findings and statistics. In fact, they intuitively make sense. The typical cube is six feet by nine feet, a total area of 45 personal square feet of space, whereas the typical workstation in an open office layout is two feet by four feet, for a grand total of eight square feet of space to yourself.

That’s a pretty dramatic difference. Standard open office layouts are loud. They’re distracting. You only need to look around at the poor introverts in the room, hunkered down, wearing headphones like battle helmets to see that cafeteria-style workspaces aren’t for everyone.

Related Article:Remote vs. In-Office Workers: Which Employee Is Actually Better?

Here Comes the “But”

For all the things that many open offices get wrong, there are just as many that they get right. The same New Yorker article that declares that in open offices, “employees suffered according to every measure,” also admits that they foster “a symbolic sense of organizational mission” and make “employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise.”

The Fortune article decrying the open office as dead tells how the layout directly spurred a recent product for a small company. Most of us have experienced this ourselves. Open offices facilitate the conversations that wouldn’t happen if we were all in rooms or cubes, and those conversations frequently translate to the new ideas, innovation, relationships, and cross-flow that keep a business healthy.

The trick, it seems, is not abandoning the open office, but reimagining it. We need to create a hybrid office.

We now know, from all the studies and from the hours we’ve put in ourselves, that there are pros and cons to both the traditional office/cube approach and the open office. Instead of starting from scratch, let’s use that knowledge to create a hybrid approach that facilitates all of today’s diverse workers: on-site, remote, introvert, extrovert, engineers, marketers, millennials, oldies like me, and everyone in between. And let’s do it in a way that anticipates and engenders not only what we need today, but the true “smart office” that will be critical to the future of work.

Here’s What the Hybrid Office Looks Like

Meeting spaces for specific functions

Instead of one-size-fits-all conference rooms, modern offices benefit from a variety of spaces to meet employees’ diverse needs. These range from large boardroom-style spaces fully equipped with one-click, app-enabled audio and video conferencing to small, soundproof enclaves for concentration and calls. These spaces should be outfitted according to their purposes, from the type of technology to the tables and chairs to the color on the walls.

Related Article:5 Tips for Designing an Office that Creates a Killer First Impression

Well-designed common spaces

Like meeting rooms, common spaces should be thoughtfully designed with a specific purpose. Eating, socializing, playing ping-pong, quick impromptu meetings, it doesn’t matter. Create spaces that allow people to blow off steam, connect with their colleagues and take a break without impacting employees who are still working. The location of these spaces is critical.

Think of your office in zones, from silent to rambunctious, and make sure that the transitions and buffers between those spaces work well, and make sense. Don’t forget to extend functionality like audio and video conferencing beyond discrete rooms to facilitate those impromptu meetings. After all, remote workers should feel like they’re part of the team and have ideas to contribute even if they’re not physically in the office, or even technically talking about “work.”

Options for workspaces

Some people like to roam, while some like a designated desk. Some people work best sitting, some prefer to stand, and some like lounging in a common space. Workers may want pictures of their dogs or kids or a wall poster of the Death Star. Provide options for different styles and sizes of workspaces and let your employees choose what works best for them. Don’t forget jump desks for remote workers, too.

Smart technology

The days of the desktop and landline are behind us. Instead, workspaces should be outfitted with charging stations and flawless network access. That means configuring wireless access points and networks to work equally well across stations, regardless of location. More connected doesn’t mean more wires, however; consider solutions like underfoot cabling to avoid clunky columns and beams that make open spaces feel fragmented.

Smart office technology will take customized workspaces even further in the future. Imagine a world in which employees can adjust the lighting, temperature, and climate of their zone with a touch of a screen, or meeting rooms that “turn on” the moment that someone enters. A hybrid office environment drives these innovations forward by focusing on the needs of individuals, not rooms.

Outside in

Natural light, greenery, in-office garden areas, green walls, and roofs, and planted patio spaces. In addition to improving air quality, creative use of plantings can buffer noise, delineate spaces, protect privacy, and aid in relaxation. In fact, all these elements produce a happier, healthier workforce, increasing employee well-being and creativity by 15 percent or more.

Related Article:9 Most Effective Apps for Internal Communication

The hybrid office uses smarts, space, and innovative technology to give workers the privacy and the freedom they need to feel connected and work more effectively. It allows employees to choose where and how they want to work. This balance is, at its core, a declaration of trust and a productivity booster. When you empower people to build their own environments, they will almost always blow you away with the results.

Going hybrid means no more cubes, and no more cafeteria tables. Today’s best office environments split the difference for a custom, collaborative space that focuses on individuals and outcomes, not walls and water coolers.

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