Fleeing “Open Offices:” Is True Flexibility Next?

Rather than strengthen collaboration, many open offices breed frustration and dysfunction, driving employees to work from home so they can produce. Read more about open office dysfunction and what employees are really thinking below.

“People are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”  –Marissa Mayer, [former] CEO, Yahoo -– 2013

“Do [companies] really think that unilaterally ending collaboration that matters to employees will produce enhanced collaboration in the office? That terminating innovative ways of working will inspire an orgy of innovation as perplexed employees are shoe-horned back into repainted cubicles?”  –Paul Rupert, CEO, Rupert Organizational Design – 2013

open office co-location not happy

A truly innovative study explodes the myth of “collaboration through co-location”

For two decades millions of employees have been asking for greater workplace flexibility, especially the ability to work from home. Some companies responded with remote work, gaining heightened employee satisfaction and significant business success. Others, not so much.

The strongest resistance has come from Silicon Valley. There gigantic open offices awash in personal perks have become the celebrated norm, built on the assumption that co-location begets superior collaboration. Rather than champion tech-enabled telework, they fielded fleets of buses to bring employees from distant affordable housing to football field-sized offices.

This summer, two innovative researchers decided to test what we have been hearing from thousands of focus group participants for years: rather than strengthen collaboration, many open offices breed frustration and dysfunction, driving employees to work from home so they can produce. What did these researchers find?

Move to open offices reduced face-to-face time by 70%, driving email usage up by 22-50%

Yes, co-location actually decreased collaboration. As Inc summarizes the study:

The design of the research was simple but incredibly clever. Study two Fortune 500 companies planning to make a switch to open-plan offices and compare how employees interact both before and after the new office design…To do this, Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban had 150 participating employees wear a gizmo called a sociometric badge. For three weeks before and after the redesign it recorded wearers’ movement, location, posture and, via infrared and sound sensors, their every conversation with colleagues. The researchers also reviewed the number of text messages and emails subjects sent during the test period.

open offices workspace not colloborative

Isn’t it time for some basic market research on flexibility?

Starting in the late 1990s, IBM’s regular surveys of rewards satisfaction found workplace flexibility first gaining on, then tying and finally surpassing comp and benefits as number one. A flood of surveys confirmed this trend. Yet following the lead of consulting firms and the mantra of space cost reduction, hundreds of companies turned to office redesign over rethinking and redesigning work itself. Seldom were employees consulted on their preferences. Instead they continued to demand true flexibility.

Few companies would roll out a brand new product without at least some credible market research. But flexible work seldom gets such treatment. For two decades my firm has conducted focus group and interview research with thousands of employees and managers. Diverse workforces want various forms of control of their time. Over a career, different cohorts want generous flextime and all forms of telework. Some seek part-time or phased retirement. Many yearn for rare compressed work weeks.

What you rarely hear in interviews is a passionate outcry for open offices. When the issue does come up, it surfaces as a plea for greater quiet, varying degrees of privacy, and an end to intrusive interruptions. Few employees see the open office as a form of flexibility. Invest in greater flex, not pricey offices, they say.

It’s hard to know what will energize, engage and satisfy employees unless you ask them

These are times of tight labor markets and a renewed focus on the centrality of recruitment and retention. We strongly encourage firms to conduct what we call a FlexAudit. Is your firm is relying on the same flex offerings you developed before the Recession? Have you really figured out exactly what your Millennials or pre-retiree Boomers want? Are you trying to figure out how to salvage a troubled open office strategy?

A comprehensive audit in 2018 will position you for a valuable redesign in 2019. And in the pursuit of a superior flexibility strategy, the words of Albert Einstein are worth recalling:

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Just tuning in? Read our last dialogue on Sandwich Generation II HERE

Paul Rupert, Founder & CEO
Rupert Organizational Design

Since 2000, Rupert Organizational Design has been building respectful workplaces. Our innovative problem-solving and over four decades of expertise on Workplace Flexibility and Phased Retirement is transforming organizations. They key to our approach is Mutual Respect. Rupert Organizational Design client partnerships range from major national and global firms, to hospitals and small businesses in achieving superior talent and operational successes. If you’d like a consultation on building a respectful workplace, contact us at info@rupertorgdesign.com.

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