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The REAL Problem With the Open Office, and What Some Companies Are Doing About It

The science of workplace is still in its infancy. Our culture has not caught up with technology and all that it has enabled us to accomplish. This causes stress and pain in the very place we spend the majority of our waking hours: work.
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Let's face it, the open office has a pretty bad rap these days.

But here's the truth of the matter: The science of workplace is still in its infancy. Our culture has not caught up with technology and all that it has enabled us to accomplish. This causes stress and pain in the very place we spend the majority of our waking hours: work. Things are changing so quickly that our accepted cultural norms are not yet defined. Workers are confused, frustrated, and worst yet, disengaged and unproductive.

In recent history, there have been articles at all extremes of the open office & productivity arguments. Some criticize working from home. Others criticize pulling people back into the office. Still others dramatically criticize the open office trend as "destroying the workplace." As in most debates, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. We are at a crossroads where technological advances are happening at an ever-increasing rate and confusing our social norms both personally and professionally.

Instead of criticizing what is NOT working, here are three examples of companies doing something to make the open office more productive.

Design for effective "I" and "WE" spaces.

According to Jan Johnson, VP of Design and Workplace Resources at Allsteel, a company who recently has led the market for collaborative furniture, the problem is that open office will invariably be dysfunctional when we are only focused on the "I" space, and don't create the right types and amount of "WE" spaces. Without the right kinds of spaces for the range of collaborative or shared highly concentrative activities in which teams and individuals engage, those activities can only happen in the open workspace. This is where we see conflict.

It's easy to see how many people have missed this important distinction. For years, the vast majority of activities in which workers engaged happened at their desks. Workers spent the vast majority of their time there. 80% or more of the floor was dedicated to workstations and offices. But as work itself has changed, so have these patterns. Knowledge work is now way more complex and requires greater interaction. We know from many informal and formal utilization studies that the average worker only spends 35-45% of their time at their assigned desks. As we have finally begun to see a reduction in paper and therefore storage, the "I" spaces are getting smaller. The saved space can be appropriately reallocated to the now ever-increasingly-necessary "WE" or shared spaces.

Johnson and her team advocate thorough up front exploration to understand the nature of work that is done by teams. They help those teams to map their most critical processes, and from there, identify what spatial, technology and other resources are needed to effectively accomplish each task in those mission-critical processes. "By following a process to gain a deep understanding of the nature of the work done in a space, then creating the right combinations of settings with built in flexibility to morph and adapt the space, appropriate protocols and cultural norms follow." Johnson says, "If involved in the process, the teams working there will 'get it' and see the linkages between what they do and how they use space and technology .The development of the solution IS change management."

Design. Measure. Improve. Redesign. Repeat.

If the whole point of open office is improving space utilization efficiency, then measuring and improving upon it should be crucial to the ongoing success of a space. Now, imagine arriving at your company's international offices and having your smart watch direct you to your first meeting automatically using data from your calendar and office floor plans. No need to check in at the front desk, your smart phone or watch has checked you in as you entered the building. This is the future of the smart office. Condeco Sense, a wireless sensor that takes daily heat and motion readings from desks at companies around the world, transmits those readings back to a centralized database in the cloud, and enables clients, even those new to the concept, to continually and accurately measure how employees use their workspace.

With these desk sensors, companies can identify their employees' different working styles and build strategies to fully engage them. Why are more meeting rooms being booked for a single employee? Perhaps it's in direct correlation with the newly introduced open floor plan, which drives them to book meeting space in order to concentrate. Why is there a sudden influx of group meetings happening in the cafeteria? Maybe it's time to create fun breakout spaces for meetings and creative brainstorms. These are the types of issues and ideas that Martin Brooker, COO of Condeco Software, is tackling at the moment with multi-national companies, workplace design firms, and real estate developers as they seek to address these challenges by using new technologies.

"One of the key challenges for organizations with hundreds and thousands of conference rooms is that they don't know if someone actually showed up or not." Brooker said. "You can book a recurring meeting with no end date, and no one is policing. We enforce check-in and check-out of the room with an easy process. If you want to change behavior in the workforce, you have to make sure the process of scheduling is as seamless as possible." With this enforcement in place, Brooker says they can point to the conference rooms that are underutilized and save companies $25,000 to $35,000 per room - the average cost of a collaboration space in most cities around the world.

Fight productivity killers.

The productivity challenge lies not only in the design of the physical office space, but also in the technology that supports the work that we do. In a recent study by Workfront, it was discovered that average American employees only spend 45% of their work time on what they were hired to do. That means less than half! Key time wasters include "inefficient meetings" and "excessive e mails." Like the open office, email was designed to improve our work life. However, it too has become problematic when used in excess.

Workfront is one company that is trying to tackle the issues of organization. Their software expands beyond standard project management which typically can also be more work than needed just to input your information into the software. According to Heather Hurst, Director of Corporate Marketing, "Workfront is the only solution that expertly manages all of your work not just projects. We call it Enterprise Work Management--a proven, cloud-based solution that manages all your work in one place."

Anyone who has moved a household can attest that change is hard in any scope. Now multiply that stress by the number of workers in the US, and you start to get an idea why cultural workplace change is so significant and overwhelming. While there is still much work to do in order to completely solve productivity challenges in the workplace, there are many companies working hard to take stress out of the change process. The idea of open office and even shared spaces doesn't have to be painful or stressful. These companies are tackling the technological challenges with not just good intentions, but positive outcomes.

Are there other companies you know of helping to make open office more productive? If so, I'd love to hear about them.