You Thought Cubicles Were Hell? Try 'Open Plan' Offices

open office plan cubiclesBy Kelly Eggers

It sure sounded like a good idea.

When Tuft and Lach Law, a small law practice in St. Paul, Minn., opted for open, shared office space, they didn't expect to hate it. After all, numerous academic studies have shown that workers are more productive in open offices and, in the trend-setting tech industry, open plans are standard.

For the law firm, it didn't work out that way. "We had a receptionist and secretary sharing a workstation," said Thomas Tuft. "The one with the biggest voice could be heard on the other's phone calls, and in attorney offices -- by clients on the phone with the attorneys." If two people had to take a call simultaneously, they were forced to whisper.

So Tuft and Lach reverted. Despite the expense, they built individual offices for each of the company's employees, excluding the receptionist. Now, said Tuft, "everyone is more productive and can close the door and focus when they need to. Employees who have their own office feel like they can make it their own and do things to make it their space, and they are more comfortable."

Tuft and Lach's decision to revert to a traditional workspace is just one example of the buyer's remorse that companies are experiencing after installing open-plan seating. Promises of more efficient, productive and collaborative teams of workers aren't always delivered on, leaving many companies grappling with the pitfalls that come with new, nontraditional office designs.

Cost-cutting is driving the move to open, collaborative spaces as much as the desire to create a non-hierarchical corporate culture. A 2011 survey from corporate real estate consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle in partnership with Thomson Reuters said 97% of corporate respondents planned to implement one or more cost-saving measures relating to real-estate, such consolidating into fewer buildings, in response to the financial crisis.

Employees Are Miserable

A 2009 Swedish study published in the Journal of Architectural Planning and Research concluded that when it came to office design, employees were least satisfied with open-plan workspaces. Those in medium-size and large open offices reported the most dissatisfaction.

When barriers between desks are eliminated, most workers just don't like the noise and loss of privacy when talking on the phone, or to one another. A survey from the American Society of Interior Designers found that 70 percent of workers feel they'd be more productive in a less noisy environment, while research from the University of California at Berkeley found that 72 percent of workers are unhappy with the level of speech privacy that they have in their workplace. A study from Bosti Associates found that 59 percent of employees' time is spent on quiet, focused work rather than collaborating with others.

"When you're in an open office, your brain becomes perceptually loaded," said Steven Orfield, president of Orfield Laboratories, a Minneapolis-based architectural and product-research firm. New open-offices are just modern versions of old line factories or call centers, he said, where workers were seated shoulder-to-shoulder with no divisions between them.

"Working in a collaborative cubicle office is kind of like working in a call center, and call-center workers last nine months before they get out of there," said Orfield. "When you can work better from a Starbucks than you can from your own office, that's an issue."

Noise And Brain Overload

Menachem Wecker, who worked for the daily news service of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., can attest to that. Once the school transitioned to an open, communal space, "the noise level was really high," said Wecker, particularly when his co-workers brought their dogs to work.

Many at GWU conducted conference calls on speakerphone, talking over one another while sitting next to employees working quietly, Wecker said. Private conference rooms were scarce and carefully hoarded by those with access to the reservations system. "You would get certain people in the office who would reserve those spaces on an ongoing basis," said Wecker.

"I tried to use Google chat and email as my primary mode of communication and tried to use the phone less, as I was self-conscious about my own conversations and how loudly I was speaking," Wecker said. "There is no benefit to the open office if everyone is just plugged in with their headphones."

Badly planned open offices, however, are creating a boom for workplace design companies. Dave Sauter, president of Pittsburgh-based Workscape Inc., which provides modular walls, cubicles and "sound-masking" systems to workplaces throughout the U.S., said his sales have increased by 41 percent since 2009. More than 70 percent of his clients with open offices retrofit with sound-masking systems.

"Every time we see the floor plans of collaborative offices, it usually means that there will be a high number of people who are dissatisfied with their speech privacy," Sauter said. "When we see these kinds of opportunities, we start coming up with solutions right away because we know it is a problem waiting to happen."

Attempts To Reduce Noise Levels

Sauter's firm installs speaker systems that play a continuous stream of pink noise, a modification of white noise that is ideal for covering up the spectrum of human speech. "When we hear even a few words out of every sentence, it is human nature to try to fill in the blanks and complete the puzzle," he said. By adding a layer of sound, it interferes with our understanding of individual words.

"The only time we get a complaint is when the power goes out," Sauter said. "People feel naked without it, they're screaming at us to get the system back on."

Retrofitting also involves raising the height of cubicle walls. "One of the key selling features that most manufacturers offer is stackability," he said. "It's a way to commit to the open plan but have a way back to taller cubes if the troops revolt."

For Peter Miscovich, the open-plan office works only because he rarely works from the office in the first place. "The way I work and the way a lot of people are working today is much more mobile and flexible," said Miscovich, a managing director with Jones Lang LaSalle. He goes to his office once every couple of weeks, he said, preferring to work anywhere from hotel rooms and clients' offices to shopping malls and Starbucks.

"The notion of noise in a collaborative workspace is a non-issue for me, because if I need to do concentrated work, I find a space that works for me," he said. Physical meetings are still important, said Miscovich, but if the work you're doing doesn't require collaboration, the notion of being tethered to a desk seems counterintuitive.

Successfully implementing a flexible workspace requires employers to understand the diverse needs and preferences of their employees, particularly that some are more easily distracted than others, Miscovich said.

Wecker said that he doesn't recall being asked about his work-environment preferences before GWU changed its office style, or any follow-up after the switch. "It was something all the 'cool' offices were doing," he said.

Many employers are arbitrarily deciding on the open-plan office without measuring its success in the long run, said Orfield. None of his clients, many of which are Fortune 500 firms, have created and analyzed benchmarks between older, permanent workspaces and new, flexible ones, he said.

"They don't track user preferences in the new spaces against the old ones," Orfield said, "the only thing they're tracking is their cost savings."

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