On the Open-Office Conundrum, and How Designing a Workplace is a Balancing Act

The majority of American workplaces are open-plan offices. With new findings of the pitfalls of such working environments, what can be done to ameliorate them?

Medium’s Bay Area office is outfitted with a series of easily personalized workspaces, including these intimate cubby holes for employees who need to cut out all distractions.

Courtesy Drew Kelly

Open collaborative workspaces are great, until they aren’t. A few years ago, several colleagues and myself were privy to what should have been a colleague’s private experience. She had been laid off. And those “on-trend” modern glassed walls simply left her—and her tears—exposed to peering eyes. 

The “fishbowl effect” is one of the many pitfalls of working in an open office environment. Coworkers and potential clients are constantly on display or are rendered distracted by their ability to see everyone—and everything. Today, many employers who adopted the 1950s open office concept are redesigning their spaces to boost productivity, creativity, and employee satisfaction. As such, “roomicles”—flexible breakout spaces that afford both privacy and collaboration—are slowly making their way into existing floor plans.

Across the U.S., 70 percent of all offices have an open floor plan. These spaces often lack walls or other physical barriers, which are meant to foster interaction and camaraderie among staff. Unobstructed common spaces have two major advantages: increased employee synergy from more frequent communication and reduced construction and operating costs. Research suggests the cons of open spaces outweigh the pros because workers often struggle with the psychological effects, decreased concentration levels due to noise, and negative impacts on health these spaces afford. But, considering that today’s workers spend less than 60 percent of time in their offices, designing an office is a balancing act.

  There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to designing a great workspace. Yet, offices that strike a balance between proximity and privacy foster better collaboration

Equipped with this information, many companies have acknowledged the importance of offering a mixed, hybrid work environment, with a variety of meeting areas that can accommodate groups of various sizes and working styles. Startups such as Airbnb and Medium have incorporated the roomicle concept into their open-plan offices. For example, Airbnb’s 72,000 square-foot San Francisco space incorporates pop-up offices. Staffers at the popular hotel alternative can erect walls at their leisure for multi-person team meetings or a private phone call. Medium on the other hand did it a great job at creating a mixture of spaces such as small nooks, meeting pods and meditation areas to accommodate the range of personalities among its team.

One should note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to designing a great workspace. Yet, offices that find strike a balance between proximity and privacy foster better collaboration while providing areas for retreat when employees need to. My former colleague would have appreciated such a space.

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