OPEN WORKPLACES: ARE WE REALLY OPENING A CAN OF WORMS?

I continue to read and hear more about businesses converting to open workplaces.  This typically means a conversion from closed physical offices to open floor plans utilizing large common areas.  There are pros and cons to both formats and, as with most things in life, there’s a happy medium that maximizes the benefits to your business and minimizes the detrimental impact that such a physical organization can have on your workplace.  The “happy medium” is as unique as a fingerprint, so a quick summary of the pros and cons can put you on the right path.

On the positive side, an open workplace has several economic benefits.  It tends to permit more efficient utilization of the space available.  An open workplace is flexible, meaning it can be shaped and re-shaped until the format which works best is discovered.  From a practical standpoint, the space available is greater because pesky things like walls aren’t taking up a bunch of room.  It also allows for the sharing of pricier business equipment, like printers and copiers.  Smaller business supplies can also be shared, but I’m in the Milton camp – spring for the individual Swinglines!

Additionally, the open workplace is usually easier to supervise because management and staff are located in one spot.  This also permits issues to be dealt with faster because they can be raised immediately with management.  The open format even adapts more readily to evolving staffing needs over time.

The greatest advantage set forth in all of the information I have taken in is that an open floor plan leads to improved innovation and creativity because communication and collaboration are enhanced.  Increased interaction fosters camaraderie and improves employee morale.  Removing barriers to communications allows the free exchange of ideas and encourages teamwork, and removing barriers to management lends itself to improving employee satisfaction.

Each of these pros, however, has a corresponding con.  While having everyone in one spot is conducive to collaboration, just think about flu season in a kindergarten classroom.  Wipe out!  The same principle applies here, and I don’t care if you buy stock in the anti-bacterial hand gel company or if you ARE the anti-bacterial hand gel company.

The increased ability to communicate also has its own pitfalls.  The first is excess noise.  Many of us have worked in offices that have that one individual who is loud on the phone.  The open office doesn’t allow you to shut the door on that kind of noise.  And, it’s not just one voice in the room.  It could be dozens of voices in the room.  While the open workplace has private areas that may be utilized by employees needing some quiet time, the reduction in concentration overall may cancel out the benefits derived from creative teamwork.

One final hurdle to the open workplace is corporate culture.  In theory, today’s generation is more accustomed to working in a large, collaborative grouping, but the science says that the impact of an open workplace on the ability to concentrate and remain undistracted is just as great as with any other generation.  What the Millennials do have on the rest of us is fewer pre-conceived notions about the value of the “corner office.”  Many workers already out there have an expectation that their loyalty and hard work will be rewarded with their own office.  Having that private space taken away may be viewed as a drop in status if corporate culture does not evolve with the office layout.

Open office workplace will not work for everyone.  My field is particularly ill-suited for that kind of arrangement because of the intense need to concentrate and to maintain client confidentiality.  On the other hand, those in marketing, advertising, or journalism may find that the boost to creativity outweighs any downfalls.  Even if wide, open spaces won’t work for your entire business, you may find certain departments benefit from the arrangement.

I’d love to hear your views on flexible workplaces.

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
 
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