How to manage diverse needs in converting to open offices

Stephanie Berry wasn’t exactly happy in 2011 when, after working for 19 years as an information technology supervisor for the state of Tennessee, she learned her office would convert to an open-space environment. “I was on the move committee for my group and sat through all the meetings where they listed the rules,” says Berry.

“I began to feel more and more like I was being sent to prison,” she adds, citing uninviting policies such as “one coffee pot per area, no heaters or fans” and threats to confiscate personal items.

Flexibility, cost benefits

What Berry experienced is common as many companies trade in cubicles with wall dividers for desks in an open-concept plan. It’s often cheaper for organizations to manage open and more flexible spaces, says Tiziana Casciaro, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“They give you more flexibility, which is economical, and you can move people around much more easily.”

As well, it’s now common for colleagues to work together on various projects, says Casciaro, referring to research that shows physical barriers affect the probability of people talking to each other. “You have the open-space office for that reason: exchanging ideas and transferring knowledge,” she says. “It’s much easier for people to have spontaneous encounters.”

Such collaboration is what creative services agency Sid Lee hopes to foster through its open-space work environment. The company has a distinguished, loft-like office in Toronto’s Distillery District.

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Sid Lee employees work right beside each other, with no dividers separating them, in a space adorned with giant bean-bag chairs as well as long tables and benches designated for meetings. The office centrepiece is a ping-pong table that sometimes doubles as a work space, and there’s no reception area as clients enter right into the space where employees work.

Vito Piazza, president of Sid Lee’s Toronto office, notes that once people walk in, they get a sense of the company’s culture. Some job candidates have even cited the work environment among their reasons for applying, he adds.

“There’s a lot of people and they’re working around tables and the level of music is not too loud,” says Piazza. “We’re creating that feeling like where you walk into a Starbucks. There’s something happening here.”

The downsides for some workplaces, employees

But while an open and flexible environment may work for an agency that requires employees to be creative and share ideas, it could be ineffective in other types of workplaces, says Casciaro. For instance, employees may find it difficult to concentrate because of “work noise, chatter and people moving around.”

Heather Kenny, a copywriter for John Wiley and Sons in Chicago, found it took her some time to adjust to the new open space her company adopted several years ago.

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As a self-professed introvert, Kenny says she sometimes felt overwhelmed by the open space. In order to cope, she negotiated a corner desk against a window that affords her some privacy and makes a point to meditate before and after work.

“When I’m trying to concentrate on something and there’s a lot of noise, it’s annoying,” says Kenny. “If that happens a lot, I might have to escape to a different part of the office.”

Taking refuge

Providing breakout spaces that include conference and vacant rooms is one way for companies to accommodate those who need some quiet or privacy, says Casciaro. “They can find ways to complement the open spaces with these separate spaces that allow people to find concentration and privacy when they need it.”

Casciaro also notes employers may want to communicate the nature of the job and the work environment to prospective candidates.

“If it requires you to talk to a lot of people, then there has to be an adjustment on how that person approaches the job. In theory, this should allow people who are introverted and need more quiet to select jobs that don’t require that much interaction.”

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At Sid Lee, employees can find refuge in some areas, but Piazza says there’s no perfect solution. “You have to find what [space] works best for you and mitigate the weakness of that approach,” he says.

Providing that balance became a challenge when Sid Lee found its space could no longer accommodate its growing number of employees. With more than 100 employees, the agency plans to relocate to a larger office across the city that provides more space.

The new space will be in a building that used to house the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art. According to Piazza, it will provide the agency with double its current space, with the additional areas used for exhibits, events and workshops.

“We love this space so much and the bar was held so high here that we had to find something that was exceptional and had another story,” says Piazza.

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Not everyone, however, will want to adapt to those types of changes. In Berry’s case, she realized the work environment simply didn’t align with her introverted personality and decided to make the switch to working as a full-time freelance writer and novelist.

She now works from the comfort of her own home. “I work in the sunroom in a big chair with an ottoman,” says Berry. “I can’t even work in a coffee shop because there’s too many visual distractions.”

Creative-DesignUsing creative design to offset the challenges of open spaces

Organizations can offset the challenges that come with open spaces by providing architectural solutions and great esthetics that make the workplace appealing, says Casciaro.

It’s an opportunity for employers to be creative, she adds. “Employees have been shown to be less productive when they’re put in dry, harsh cubicles that don’t allow any privacy or moment of focus.”

Piazza says Sid Lee’s location in the Distillery District allowed the agency to display “the beauty of the building. We try to make the space as enjoyable as possible by having it well lit, airy and dynamic.”

Piazza hopes to create that same atmosphere in the new office, which he says will provide amenities such as a fireplace in addition to the agency’s ping-pong table.

Case study: How American Express adopted an open office workplace


Jann Lee is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.

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