How To Evolve Beyond The Open Office

By Amol Sarva

Originally published in Forbes.

Trends come and go, and ideas and cultural standards swing like pendulums. We see this everywhere: in politics, fashion, language and design. We see it in the workplace, too. In the past decade or so, the closed cubicle and the private office went extinct, ushering in the era of the open office. Thought to be collaboration-friendly and creative, it’s a common choice in workspace design. But now that the data is coming in, researchers are starting to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the standard open office plan. A recent study published in HBR found that open layouts, when set up incorrectly, may actually be detrimental to productivity, collaboration and office interaction.

The key here is execution. Just as the right fit can make any outfit look stylish, an office layout establishes the tone and flow of the work itself. That’s why more businesses are adopting the principles of the activity-based workspace (ABW), a model that optimizes space efficiency, encourages creative cross-pollination and, above all, gives employees the flexibility to work in a way that suits them best.

Let’s look at five actionable steps business leaders can take to reevaluate their open office thinking and create a truly successful ABW workspace.

Dive Into The Data

We’re living in data-rich times — research has become relatively easy, and better yet, employees are eager to give feedback. Find out how ABW can work for your own business. Collect data from employee surveys and prior space utilization, and use it to identify individual needs and build flexible, tailored spaces based on specific feedback.

Ask employees what their needs are and how you might better serve them. It’s a straightforward way to improve staff buy-in. Data collection doesn’t have to feel like sci-fi — good old-fashioned surveys, suggestion boxes and one-on-one conversations often yield the best insights.

Ask how many people are using the conference room, and when and how they inhabit the space. Take notes, and then take action by offering solutions that reflect what you’ve heard from your own employees.

Tailor What You Have

Improving a workspace doesn’t always require a total makeover. Sometimes it can be accomplished with small but meaningful changes to existing elements of the layout. These relatively minor changes can yield big results. Simply adjusting lighting, temperature or air quality can make employees feel more comfortable in their space and consequently more productive. Likewise, introducing acoustic masking, ergonomic seating or movable whiteboards can instill a greater sense of flexibility within the work environment.

It’s often the little stuff that makes or breaks an experience, and creating a people-responsive space goes a long way toward productivity. Think of tailoring: an inch here or an inch there makes the difference between a baggy fit and a tailored, crisp look. As a bonus, many of these operational changes can be budget-friendly.

Nurture Community At Work

In many cases, an open office or a cubicle-oriented space suggests that every employee works in the same way. But a truly collaborative work environment is a community of different ideas and people.

That’s why you should acknowledge different categories of workers according to their personality types (introverts and extroverts, collaborators and researchers) and empower them by crafting workspaces that cater to style without sacrificing function. An open-air office can be adjusted significantly to meet these personality and style needs.

Think about creating a bullpen environment for the sales team, phone booth-style breakout rooms for introverts, a visually compelling space for the creative and design teams and common rooms for everyone to meet and be involved in a community while still at work. As HBR notes, an ABW-based strategy is not about everyone interacting all the time, but about creating opportunities for the right engagement at the right time.

Put Creativity and Flexibility in Your Furnishings

Interestingly, HBR researchers discovered that in an open office plan, many employees naturally establish an invisible “fourth wall”—a version of the classic “do not disturb” sign that signals a need for privacy in a public setting. Perhaps you’re behind a fourth wall right now so you can read in peace?

Here’s where flexible thinking can make a huge difference. Adding boundaries like curtains or moveable walls provides privacy and separation without restricting light or reducing the flow of people through a space.

You can try to innovate on the open-office model by adding a garage door, modular furniture and different seating and meeting room options. Another benefit of these flexible, activity-based workspaces? Motivation. Seeing different teams working and using space differently can be inspiring. Flexibility in design, architecture and furnishings will strengthen employees’ capacity for creative thinking, and encourage them to solve problems that seemed intractable before.

People Come To Work To Work

Your employees want to be productive — that’s the whole point, and it’s why you’ve worked to acquire the best talent for your company. If you’ve already invested so many resources into your workforce, you’d be remiss not to empower them with a workspace that lets them do what they do best.

Create a space where your employees can do what you hired them to do: work. A jungle gym in the office is fun, but at the end of the day, people want their workspaces to be workspaces. Replace your oversized sofas with comfortable, yet structural, furniture that encourages informal chats as well as laptop moments.

Using an activity-based strategy while planning is crucial to getting the most out of an office layout — an open, free-flowing feel combined with structures and mobility to adapt to the needs of your employees.

With these five ideas, any office or business leader can make sustainable and innovative changes to their open office plan and move toward a design fit that’s flexible, structured and, of course, on-trend.