United States: The Swinging Pendulum Of The Ideal Office Space

Last Updated: July 25 2018
Article by Rashal Baz and Katherine Mendez

The search for the perfect workspace to retain top talent has been a developing trend since the tech bubble and is now swinging away from the entirely open office concept in the hunt to find the perfect hybrid approach.

There have been many shifts in workspace environments, all touting new-found achievement in employee productivity and happiness.  Previously, the metric used to measure the top offices was the location and the view; but now, employers pressed to find new ways to retain the best talent are placing increased importance on alternative workspaces. 

Some of the more popular workspaces can be placed into five categories: (1) Open Offices; (2) Private Offices; (3) Cubicles; (4) Remote Work; and (5) Co-working Spaces.  The advantages and disadvantages of these alternatives are considered below:

The Open Office

The open office space, embodied by a divider-less, elbow-to-elbow type work environment, is meant to stimulate collaboration and creativity. The idea that employees can turn to their peers to discuss issues and have others weigh in on the conversation streamlines the problem-solving process.  This floor plan is ideal for maximizing a company's space while minimizing costs, and allows for management to keep a closer eye on employees. The downside is that there is little-to-no privacy, constant noise distraction, and excessive transparency. Further, some employees have reported that open office plans have made their workforce more vulnerable to illness.  Companies are increasingly finding that the distractions and other drawbacks inherent in an open office environment lead to decreased employee focus and productivity.  Indeed, the Washington Post reported as far back as December 30, 2014, that the open office trend was "destroying the workplace." 

Employers considering this trend should take into account whether collaboration is really an integral part of employees' focus, the need for privacy in employees' jobs, and whether noise and other distractions would decrease productivity.  

The Private Office and Hoteling

The private office is the most traditional workspace.  In most workplaces, private offices still exist but are reserved for the c-suite or high-level management.  From a cost perspective, it is expensive and not spatially efficient to give everyone a private office.  However, the use of private offices are still found in many industries requiring a degree of privacy, including the financial, legal, and medical professions.  A hybrid of the private office is the shared private office or "hoteling" space, where office space can be "checked out" by employees who use the office for that day.  Phones can be programmed to each employee's direct line so they are accessible while using the hoteling office.  This solution allows for privacy but minimizes the amount of real estate needed, as not every employee needs their own office.  "Hoteling" is usually paired with a telecommuting arrangement so employees can work remotely on days they are not in the office.

Telecommuting

Of all the workplace trends, telecommuting or remote work has the most skeptics, particularly from the baby boomer generation where face-time traditionally held great weight.  Think of the advice, "be the first to arrive and the last to leave."  Technology has made face-time less necessary because most employees are always dialed in to the workplace via computers and phones.  Indeed, the 9 to 5 concept is now a 24/7 approach, which may have made working from home an acceptable trade-off to being "plugged in" to work all the time.  Allowing employees to telecommute gives them the freedom of mobility without changing the expectation of performance output. Further, employees are increasingly reporting that they are more productive and less distracted by things like water-cooler gossip when they telecommute.

Telecommuting is not without pitfalls—most notably less collaboration and the weakening of team dynamics.  A study published in the Harvard Business Review polled 1,152 employees, 52% of whom worked from their home office, and found that telecommuting workers feel their colleagues don't treat them equally.  Specifically, they feel they are being left out, not being notified of changes to team projects and not assimilating into the social order.

Employers should weigh the benefits of allowing certain employees to telecommute with the cost of losing their presence in the workplace.  This assessment will largely be driven by the type of work completed and the personality traits that make for a successful telecommuter.

Cubicles

In workplace lingo, the cubicle should be a synonym for compromise because it is an effort to meet halfway between a private office and open-space layout.  It allows for the cost-saving advantage of an open office space with dividers that mirror a sense of privacy gained from the private office format.  However, noise issues are a major concern, particularly because most cubicle-type environments require calls (think sales centers and customer support hotlines).  Normal movement around the office can also be a distraction.  These issues can be remedied by providing empty offices or phone rooms that can be reserved or private meeting spaces or "huddle rooms" for employees to collaborate away from their cubicle.  

Co-working Spaces

The latest and greatest in workspace trends is "co-working spaces."  These are membership-based workspaces that bring together a diverse group of remote workers, freelancers, and other independent professionals in a shared, community setting.  These spaces are accessible 24/7 and adopt the open space floor plan with some private desks or offices.  The idea behind co-working spaces is to bring a variety of individuals together to share ideas with one another and spark innovation.  These spaces are a cheaper alternative to renting your own office real estate.  Many workers find these spaces more helpful than sitting at a coffee shop or local bookstore because everyone around them is in a work-oriented mindset. 

The Wave of the Future

The described workspaces may call for a hybrid approach to the office environment.  It is clear that each setting has its pros and cons, but achieving optimal efficiency and employee engagement depends on the type of work employees are expected to perform.  Among other considerations, employers should take into account workplace culture, employees' need for privacy, the need for collaboration, and whether the job is conducive to remote work. A one-size-fits-all approach may not work for all positions within the same company.  A mix of various workspaces, depending on employees' positions and job descriptions may be optimal.  Ultimately, the complexities of office environments must be tailored to the type of work the company engages in and the talent it wishes to recruit.  One thing is for certain—employers should not jump to the latest office space trend without considering the needs of their employees and the effect the workspace will have on their productivity and happiness. 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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