Offices vs. Open Space

LEAD STORY-DATELINE: HR Magazine, September 2002.

In a detailed analysis, Robert Grossman notes that experts agree that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for designing the ideal workplace. However, they fall into two deeply divided camps when it comes to a fundamental aspect of apportioning space: One group proselytizes for a return to private offices, the other promotes completely open offices. Interestingly, these groups are united in their disdain for what some might consider a compromise position—cubicles, the office environment most commonly used by employers. Currently, an estimated 70% of workers spend their time in cubicles.

Franklin Becker, director of the International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University, believes cubicle walls should come down. "Usually, you can't see the person in the cube next to you unless you stand up," he says. Currently, 10% of offices are completely barrier-free, with no partitions separating workstations, estimate experts. In these environments, everyone—including the bosses—sits in the open on rollable chairs arranged in clusters or rows in bullpens. But Michael Brill, founder of the School of Architecture at the University of Buffalo, believes that private offices—even small ones—pay dividends for all workers by creating a more productive work environment. Brill studied the impact of the work environment on work satisfaction and performance for more than two decades. Working from a database of 13,000 people in 40 organizations, he's identified the 10 most important predictors of job performance. The top two are: The ability to do distraction-free work for teams and individuals, and the ability to have easy, frequent, informal interactions. Though privacy is important, Becker believes that promoting collaboration is at the core of good office design. As a result, he recommends a series of small-scale four- to eight-person "war rooms" or team offices.

When the dust settles, will private offices re-capture the turf they have ceded to cubicles in the past 25 years? Or will the partitions that divide cubicles be cast aside, opening offices even more dramatically? Whatever the outcome, it's clear that HR, as monitor of culture and measurer of satisfaction, productivity, health and safety, needs to be involved. Lisa Bender of MITRE Corp. says HR should be thinking broadly about the physical environment and how it impacts employee satisfaction and productivity. Space is essentially a people issue.





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Offices vs. open space 
Grossman, Robert J.; HRMagazine; Alexandria; Sep 2002

Deciding whether to tear down the walls or build them up isn't always an open-and-shut decision. 


Experts agree that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for designing the ideal workplace. However, they fall into two deeply divided camps when it comes to a fundamental aspect of apportioning space: One group proselytizes for a return to private offices, the other promotes completely open offices. 

Interestingly, these groups are united in their disdain for what some might consider a compromise position - cubicles, the office environment most commonly used by employers. Currently, an estimated 70 percent of workers spend their time in cubicles. 

"They provide pseudo-privacy at best, and are terrible for spontaneous communication," says Franklin Becker, director of the International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University. 

"Cubicles are acoustic sieves that intrude on your thoughts and conversations," agrees Michael Brill, president of BOSTI Associates, a workplace planning and design consultant in Buffalo, N.Y., and founder of the School of Architecture at the University of Buffalo. 

But that's where the agreement ends for these two experts. 

Becker believes cubicle walls should come down. "Usually, you can't see the person in the cube next to you unless you stand up," he says. 

Currently, 10 percent of offices are completely barrier-free, with no partitions separating workstations, estimate experts. In these environments, everyone - including the bosses - sits in the open on rollable chairs arranged in clusters or rows in bullpens. 

In some workplaces, the private office still reigns as the primary means of allocating space - especially for those higher in the hierarchy. Overall, however, offices are becoming less common as companies squeeze funds from their facilities budgets. But Brill believes that private offices - even small ones - pay dividends for all workers by creating a more productive work environment. 

HR professionals and facilities administrators caught between these two diverging opinions can easily become confused about whether one setup is generally better suited than another to their workplace. Ultimately, you'll need to take a close look at your organization's needs, processes and culture and decide for yourself. 


Privacy vs. Collaboration 

Brill studied the impact of the work environment on work satisfaction and performance for more than two decades. Working from a database of 13,000 people in 40 organizations, he's identified the 10 most important predictors of job performance. The top two are: 

1. The ability to do distraction-free work for teams and individuals. 

2. The ability to have easy, frequent, informal interactions. 

On average, when these factors were addressed at the 40 organizations studied, individual performance jumped 4 percent to 5 percent, team performance 23 percent. Job satisfaction rose 23 percent. 

For Brill, the equation is simple: Workers spend the majority of their time in private or near-private activity. As a result, he advocates giving each person a private office, no matter how small. 

In addition, most meetings - unscheduled, usually involving two or three people - occur at the workstation. Private spaces encourage impromptu, confidential conversations - which are the "backbone" of an organization, according to Brill. 

"We've been experimenting with acoustically private offices that are 50-60 square feet with sliding glass doors - substantially smaller than the traditional private office. These new 'cocktail' offices are interspersed with or surround an open team area just outside the individual doors. The design permits people to do distraction-free work by keeping the door shut. If they choose, they can keep the door open, or step right outside to the collaborative space." 


Collaboration Trumps Privacy 

Though privacy is important, Becker believes that promoting collaboration is at the core of good office design. Becker's studies reveal that workers spend most of their time with their teams and go to private places only as needed. 

As a result, he recommends a series of small-scale four- to eight-person "war rooms" or team offices. They can be in a room fully enclosed or clustered in a larger space. "There are times when someone needs total privacy, but no one works eight hours a day in the total concentration mode. You work in spurts; so you need to have the chance to get privacy when you need it." 

He cites a University of Michigan study in which two teams of software developers at Ford Motors were separated. One team was given private offices, the other assigned to war rooms. The group in the war rooms was twice as productive. 

He also cites research showing that private offices can kill intergroup collaboration. "In a survey of 2,000 employees, we found that the likelihood that you'll have contact outside your group drops dramatically when you have a private office," he says. 


Reading Between the Lines 

In an attempt to decide if public or private spaces are best suited to their particular business and workforce, some employers have adopted an intuitively logical approach: They ask workers what they prefer. 

However, if you take this tack you may need to take the responses you receive with a grain of salt. The office is a complex organism, with many interrelated forces - cultural, physical and psychological. To understand what's really happening, you sometimes have to read between the lines. 

Workers' near-universal call for more privacy is an example. In surveys, workers' No. 1 complaint is lack of privacy; the top request is for a private office, no matter how small. 

Grousing about privacy, however, often is a smoke screen. Such complaints sometimes involve nothing more than status. "We're working in an environment where vice presidents have been moved out of their private offices," Becker says. "They feel they've been devalued. But it's easier for them to complain about the noise than to admit to their real sentiments." 

Still, whatever their reasons, aren't happy workers more productive? Not necessarily, says Becker. Sometimes an environment that's not the most personally comfortable does a better job of enhancing group productivity. 

"Creative tension can be healthy," Becker says. "People who are asked about privacy usually respond from a personal perspective. Even if a private office would make them more productive, it's not always the best option. When people discover that a hindrance of their personal productivity may help the team move along, they tend to accept the open office." 

Brill counters that office design must satisfy both the needs of the organization and the individual. "You have to accommodate both - they're not tradeoffs," says Brill. "We have watched the physical environment go from private to open offices. But it doesn't increase interaction and doesn't make for an open organization. When you do a serious investigation, you discover ... it's really a myth." 

He bristles at the suggestion that private office designs promote individual status over team performance. "The idea that status comes from the physical trappings of isolation, size and splendor is a kind of lunatic vision of what's important to a business. People get status from a whole series of channels. The big ones are good colleagues, challenging work and intelligent management." 


Down the Road 

When the dust settles, will private offices re-capture the turf they have ceded to cubicles in the past 25 years? Or will the partitions that divide cubicles be cast aside, opening offices even more dramatically? 

Whatever the outcome, it's clear that HR, as monitor of culture and measurer of satisfaction, productivity, health and safety, needs to be involved. 

"HR should be thinking broadly about the physical environment and how it impacts employee satisfaction and productivity," concludes Lisa Bender, vice president and director of HR at the MITRE Corp., Bedford, Mass. "Space is a people issue. When decisions are made, we need to be in the middle, helping employees say what they need to do their job. We need to be advocates for having an inclusive, participative process." 


CommonHealth: Offices Had to Go 

At CommonHealth, a New Jersey-based health-products ad agency, Susan DiDonato, senior vice president of human resources, was handed the challenge of coordinating the renovation of 90,000 square feet in three buildings without interrupting business. "The goal of the project was to enhance interaction at all levels - between departments and among the people in each department, while sticking to a space allocation of no more than 175 square feet per person," she says. Process goals were to hold complaints to a minimum and not restrict workflow. 

Initially, the CEO and the presidents of each of the company's 10 operating groups said they would consider open offices, but not for themselves. "When we ran the numbers, we discovered that we couldn't deliver the project within budget and still maintain their private offices," recalls the project consultant, Arnold Levin, design principal of Mancini Duffy in Washington, D.C. 

Then a key senior manager relented. "If he could have a place to have meetings, he agreed to sacrifice his private office. With everyone on board, we moved people by groups into open workstations and clustered conference rooms around the groups. We also put in silence rooms, increased the amount of collaborative space, and brought the whole project in within budget." 
Each building has an atrium featuring a place where workers can congregate - a kitchen, cafeteria (designed like a bistro), cappuccino bar or other area that encourages informal interaction. "We find the best ideas may happen in the hallways, and the open cubicles give us a balance between chaos and concentration," DiDonato says. 

"So far, people seem to enjoy the openness," she says. "Each brand team is assigned to its own room; it makes the workflow faster, and you can see the excitement of people when they're together. Going from private offices to cubicles was a huge cultural change. But we did it in a way that recognized the different characteristics of our various business units. No one size fits all; the units all look different." 


MITRE Corp: 'We Want Walls' 

Any doubts about where MITRE's 4,000 engineers stood on the issue of private offices were settled when they were asked for their opinions on the subject. "It put to bed forever, that, in our engineering environment, a private office, no matter the size, is preferable to open space," says Lisa Bender, vice president and director of HR at MITRE. 

"Collaboration and information sharing is a cornerstone of the MITRE culture, yet our folks say they need quiet, private time. They would kill the corporate officers if we moved them into open space." 
Bender says asking people what they want can be risky ... and costly. "in cultures that don't think about employees as adult human beings it's a scary proposition when you talk about facilities. You're afraid everyone wants a private office with a bathroom and the cost of the project won't allow you to meet expectations." At MITRE, private offices, from a cost perspective are "off benchmark," but worth it, Bender says. 

Bender was a catalyst in the process that drove the renovation efforts at MITRE. She brought in BOSTI Associates, a workplace planning and design consultant in Buffalo, fit:Y., to help survey the employees and field-test various configurations. 

"It's best when the line drives the process," she says. "But when issues like retention, recruitment and productivity come to the fore, it's clearly within HR's province." 


Goldman Sachs: Open and Flexible 

As Goldman Sachs & Co. prepares to relocate thousands of employees to new facilities in London, Tokyo and Jersey City, N.J,, ideas about open offices are being tested. "The challenge is to create new environments that reinforce the corporate culture and improve productivity and communication," says Tom Osmond, who has a background in HR and is assigned to the project team. 

The company began with an employee survey across business units, asking workers what they liked and disliked about the current space. Senior managers around the world were interviewed, costs and designs benchmarked. 

"We found that about 20 percent of our population consumes more than 40 percent of the space and accounts for more than 60 percent of the costs," Osmond says. "The only people who really benefited from private offices were the top 30 percent; the others were in cubicles." Then Osmond's team ran pilot studies, setting up model offices, moving people in and assessing the impacts. The open offices received a resounding endorsement. "People said that teamwork and communication went up," he says. "in the London office, 80 percent of the people said the work environment was better." 

As a result, when the rollout receives the final go-ahead, most private offices and cubicles will give way to moveable, low-partitioned workstations. Spaces for conferences and informal meetings, private alcoves and coffee spots will be centralized in the interior of each floor. 

Flexibility, Osmond says, is key. "We're aiming to provide flexibility for individuals, groups and business units. Each person will decide about the layout of his or her desk, the group will choose how their work area is configured, and the business unit will determine the overall layout." 


Extra Online Resources 

To discuss how the office environment and HR intersect, log on to www.shrm.org/ hrtalk and click on "HR Magazine Discussion Area." 


Editor's note: Michael Brill passed away shortly before this issue went to press. 


Author note:
Robert J. Grossman, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. 


Full Text: 
Copyright Society for Human Resource Management Sep 2002


TALKING IT OVER AND THINKING IT THROUGH!

  1. Grossman's article is primarily about office environments. Compare the concerns of office designers and the designers of manufacturing or retail settings.

  2. According to the job characteristics model, jobs differ in skill variety, task identify, task significance, autonomy, and feedback. Which kind of jobs do you think are most suitable to an open office design?

  3. Assume that an office designer is trying to have the best of all worlds: privacy and group work, close contact and independent work, shared responsibility by all and accountability of top managers. What would be an appropriate set of solutions to this problem?

  4. What are some of the professional specialties that can help office planners get what they want out of their designs?


SOURCE:

Grossman, Robert J. "Offices vs. Open Space." HR Magazine, September 2002.


Pedagogy provided by Roland J. Kushner, Kushner Management Advisory Services