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open office environment

5 things you need to do before you switch to an open office

by ​Karen Henry
Does your workplace feel cramped or out-of-touch? It may be time to make a change.

By now, you’ve surely read about the benefits of making the switch to an open office. Likely, the story you read had some pictures of rooms that would barely have been recognized as a workplace 15 or 20 years ago — employees working at open tables right next to each other, rather than inside a tiny cubicle. This open office layout certainly looks better than the style of the old office and its seemingly unending rows of cubicles, washed out by the harsh fluorescent lighting.

​If you want workers to feel invested in change, you have to explain why the change is being made.

Considering this, it’s no surprise that the open office layout has become rather popular in a number of organizations. An open office layout can make more efficient use of available space, spur collaboration between employees, and accommodate a variety of working styles for maximum productivity.

That said, it’s not all sunshine and roses when it comes to making the switch to an open office. Some workers may not like making such a drastic change. Some may not function well working in close quarters with others. But you can avoid many of these pitfalls by following these five simple tips.

1. Make a plan

This is the most obvious one, and yet it’s often the most ignored. You need a plan that goes beyond “this is where we’ll put these tables.”

This is a pretty significant shift within your organization, and if you’re going to get the productivity-boosting benefits that an open office can provide, you need to consider a host of factors — how to make the most effective use of the space, how to accommodate different workstyles, communicating with your workforce why this change is being made, and more.

But you should also consider how the change is going to affect your business processes and operations. Simply the act of breaking down a wall can cause serious disruption to your everyday business processes.

Bottom line: Change affects everybody differently, and what may seem a small change for you could be a massive change for someone working underneath you. Keep that in mind, and have a plan in place before making a change. Of course, this also means that you should…
to women in open office talking

2. Focus on your people

Change is fine when employees know what’s coming — and why.

Think back to a time when a change when on the horizon and all you were hearing from your coworkers was conjecture about the changes and what impact they’d have on you and your organization — and those conversations are very rarely positive. You’re trying to prevent that situation from happening within your organization, and while some may disagree, being open and up-front about your intentions and rationale for making these changes can forestall a lot of problems.

That said, the best-laid plans mean nothing if your workers do not feel comfortable in their work environment. This includes many introverts, who often find such an open environment absolutely exhausting. If that’s the case with some of your workforce, then it’s all the more important to provide a variety of working options to accommodate them.

It’s also important to foster a company culture that understands these needs, and allows introverts to be themselves — without being concerned that they’ll be perceived as bad employees for not interacting with others as much as some of your more extroverted workers.

​We need to provide spaces where everyone in the company, regardless of personality or role, will feel comfortable. 


3. Design your workplace layout

Everybody knows that people work differently. But at its worst, an open office environment is a one-size-fits-all solution that dumps everybody in the same working environment, no matter if it’s most effective for that person. In an interview with Fast Company, design consultant John Kerrigan had this to say about this type of layout:

"We need to provide spaces where everyone in the company, regardless of personality or role, will feel comfortable."

Instead, consider providing a host of work environment options. Some experts1 suggest offering at least 6 different types of workspaces: a space where you work alone, a space where a team can work, and a space where many teams can work together; and each of these spaces with open and closed/private options.

Providing adequate privacy is an important aspect of your workplace layout, as well. Studies have found2 that a feeling of privacy at work contributes strongly to job satisfaction and performance. But an open office can be antithetical to privacy. How do you ensure privacy in a work environment where most people are working at tables rather than desks?

There’s a simple answer: Provide a private space where people feel comfortable keeping their personal belongings. While many enjoy the open office layout, a layout without a space for workers to call their own won’t be nearly as productive or efficient for your organization.

4. Consider your unique needs

Every workplace is different, and what works at one place may not work somewhere else. This is true across departments the same as it is across organizations. Consider the example of HR or document management in a heavily regulated industry like healthcare or insurance. An open layout, while a boon to collaboration, does not work as well in departments where privacy and confidentiality are key factors. Instead, you should provide these elements of your workforce with a workplace that not only meets their needs, but also considers the type of work they do.

5. Ensure you have information connectivity

An enterprise is a complex thing, made up of many moving parts all working toward the same goal. For it to succeed, information must flow freely through the organization. Technology must enable workers to connect and collaborate both inside and outside of the office. And if your workers have access to the right information and the right technology, they’ll be more efficient, more productive, and make better business decisions for your organization.

Your workplace is where your workforce accesses, shares and interacts with your critical business information, and where your workers connect and collaborate. It’s the spot where your workforce, technology and information all integrate together — and with the right workspace, you can collaborate across your entire organization.

While there are many arguments out there against the open office, most assume a one-size-fits-all version that doesn’t take into account employee personalities and workstyles. By keeping your workforce at the forefront while making this switch to an open office layout, and following these five simple rules, you can get a lot more of the benefits of an open office, and a lot fewer of the drawbacks.

Is an open office layout right for your organization?

Consider these five tips to decide if an open office will improve collaboration and productivity.
Karen Henry
Karen Henry, Principal Consultant for Ricoh USA, Inc.’s Consulting Services Organizational Agility group, is experienced in driving end-user adoption in support of customer business process and technology changes. Henry is a certified change management practitioner who implements sustainable and continuous change management programs and solutions within the retail, healthcare and hospitality industries. She is a Prosci Certified Change Management Practitioner (CCMP).
1 Ilan Mochari. "The Perils of Open-Office Spaces." Inc. January 10, 2014. http://www.inc.com/ilan-mochari/open-office-spaces.html
2 Eric Sundstrom et al. "Privacy at Work: Architectural Correlates of Job Satisfaction and Job Performance." Academy of Management Journal. March 1980. http://www.jstor.org/stable/255498?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents