March 16, 2017 | Liz Austin

Opening up your office space could be the key to unlocking your company’s collaborative potential.

It’s no secret that moving into a new office space can be a wonderful way to re-energize your company. The question is, how can you arrange that space to not only reflect your business’ goals and values, but to increase employee productivity in a measurable, concrete way?

For many companies, the answer to this question has been found in the open floor plan. Originally introduced as an alternative to the cubicle, this layout dismantles traditional organizational hierarchies and increases transparency among employees across different levels along the chain of command. So, where did this innovative workspace floor plan originate — and how can we expect it to evolve in the years to come?

Abolishing the “Cubicle Farm”

Believe it or not, the oft-roasted “cubicle farm” was actually introduced as an antidote to the open office floor plans of the 1950s. Herman Miller Chief Executive Robert Propst proposed an “action office” of high-quality panels and moveable components with the ultimate goal of employee liberation. By giving workers privacy, space, and flexibility, according to Fortune, “Propst hoped to set them free.” Yet as companies cut costs, cubicles declined in quality and size — and became synonymous with the corporate rat race.

Something had to change. A 1993 report on office design foreshadowed the revolution to come: “The object of the new office is to attract and retain brilliant staff, to stimulate their creativity, and to multiply organizational productivity.” How did the writers of this report propose breathing new life into the office? By fostering interaction, collaboration, and shared space — and returning to an updated version of the original open office of the 1950s.

Benefits of the Open Office

There’s a reason why the design caught on like wildfire. First implemented among budding dot-coms and innovative start-ups, open offices were touted for facilitating increased collaboration and communication, dismantling hierarchal structures, and, of course, offering a cost-effective option for growing companies. Now, with 70% of American employees spending their workdays in an open office space, this design has become the new norm.

Ideally, open offices encourage employees to blend social interaction and solitary work seamlessly. Whereas in a traditional office environment, employees must leave their cubicles to seek out interaction, an open office fosters connectivity between workspaces. With departments sitting side-by-side, staff can work together in organic and unexpected ways. Plus, since workspaces are universally visible, this environment can encourage productivity: workers at Atomic Object believe their office setup “holds employees accountable to each other for their daily productivity.”

In financial terms, open offices can’t be beat, either. After switching to an open office in California, CEO of NEAD App Development T.J. Sokol got “4,000 square feet of industrial space at 69 cents a square foot,” as opposed to a “cramped office space for $2.50 per square foot.” Open office plans also give budding companies room to grow. Whereas the average cubicle measures 6-by-6 feet, the required space per employee in an open office plan is only two feet by two feet.

Making the Open Office Work for Your Company

It’s only when companies push the open office model to extremes that detractors have come out of from the woodwork to cite the potential drawbacks. Since the long desks typical of many open office plans can fit more people than static cubicles, companies often squeeze too many people into the space. A Gensler workplace survey states that “from 2010 to 2012, the average square foot per person dropped from 225 to 176.” These tighter quarters can indeed hinder productivity, as a model meant to foster collaboration may also foster distraction.

Despite these potential pitfalls, a carefully deployed open office is still a highly fruitful choice for growing companies. When The Bridgespan Group designed their highly successful open office plan in 2014, they did so with employees’ needs in mind. The company’s new office includes versatile features like a closed-office library space, a “laboratory” space designed for brainstorming, a bank for private meeting rooms, and an open cafe. Six months later, the company believes their space “is not so much built to last as built to change.”

A hybrid office accounts for the fact that different job functions call for different spaces. Depending on whether employees want to focus, collaborate, learn, or socialize, they can select the environments that suit their specific needs throughout the workday. Perhaps this employee empowerment is the ultimate investment: businesses that offer autonomy to their employees grow four times faster than those that don’t.

At Green Street, we have experience envisioning and executing flexible workspace designs in a variety of contexts. Our Market St. location, for example, provides startups and smaller companies with a sleek, tech-enabled office space. Our ultimate goal: to provide a connected, flexible work environment in which employees can thrive and businesses can grow.

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