Open Office Can Enhance Collaboration, Creativity, but Design Must Be Customized

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine  

March 19 — Open offices are all the rage these days, but while the concept can work well, it needs to be customized to the needs of each organization that adopts it, according to an architect who specializes in designing such workspaces.

Popular magazine articles sometimes assert that the open office is a magnet for employees, “but it tends to attract younger workers and drive away older ones,” Kristine Woolsey told Bloomberg BNA in a March 11 interview. That's because young, ambitious employees who “walk into a company with very hierarchical offices, wood panelling and an executive washroom on the top floor, will think there is little opportunity for advancement,” she explained, while an open office might attract them because it would be viewed in the opposite way.

“For most, the answer is some combination of open and closed space,” added Phoenix-based Woolsey, who has helped design offices for Medtronic, Ticketmaster, Anheuser Busch and many lesser known companies.

Workers More Productive in Groups

The basic reason for combining the two kinds of workspace is that “both extroverts and introverts perform better around other people but learn better alone,” Woolsey said.

“The open office improves collaboration,” she said. “When it comes to productivity, we're maxed out as individuals, with all that time spent working on iPads and other devices.”

But we haven't reached our full potential “as a collectivity,” Woolsey added, because of something called “the adjacent possibility”—the phenomenon that people tend to invent more when they work together. She pointed to the work of Scott Page, a University of Michigan professor and author of “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies,” for the insight that “a diverse team comes up with solutions faster.”

According to a Princeton University Press web page devoted to Page's book, “ ‘The Difference' reveals that progress and innovation may depend less on lone thinkers with enormous IQs than on diverse people working together and capitalizing on their individuality. Page shows how groups that display a range of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts.”

That counterintuitive insight that groupthink can be creative in turn stems from “the ability to have casual interactions,” which the open office is meant to encourage, Woolsey said.

“But it's more than just putting a bunch of people in a room with desks,” she said. “They might not talk to each other.”

Only Fools Rush In

Too many organizations are rushing into the open-office model without giving it enough thought, for one of two bad reasons, she added: “they want to have a cool-looking space, or they want to save space and facilities costs.”

The open office “tends to attract younger workers and drive away older ones,” architect Kristine Woolsey told Bloomberg BNA. That's because young, ambitious employees who “walk into a company with very hierarchical offices, wood panelling and an executive washroom on the top floor, will think there is little opportunity for advancement.”

One solution is to design an open office with smaller rooms branching off that employees can use on a temporary basis, Woolsey said. “But don't put a phone in there or people will turn it into their own de facto private office,” she cautioned.

Google has adopted a slightly different solution, designing small open offices in which six to eight people can work—a group size that is supposed to be the biggest in which individuals can work together without a leader, according to Woolsey. The drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline has settled on the concept of an “activity-based workplace” filled with desks that are not assigned to any specific employee, she said.

Woolsey said that for her, the watchwords in designing an open office are “amenity, location and community, so people will want to work together.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bna.com