Technology is changing the way we live, but it’s also affecting how work is done and the way workspaces are designed. Indeed, computers have made the need for a core physical space where employees work together almost obsolete.

In 2018, Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban studied this concept with 150 employees for three weeks before and three weeks after an office was converted to an open design. They found face-to-face time dropped 70 per cent, while use of emails and text messages rose significantly.

Read: Open offices can have unintended consequences on workers, study finds

Toronto-based McMillan LLP redesigned its closed offices with glass to allow more natural light to filter into the interior and create a brighter space, says Nisha Rider, the law firm’s national director of human resources. On its operational floor, it established a mix of spaces, including traditional work stations with low partitions, a number of bench-style seating options, hoteling offices and private phone rooms. The new layout also provides a variety of collaboration spaces, she adds, including tech rooms for small meetings, like video and web calls, and seating for impromptu small group discussions.

“We’d been in the same space for many years and wanted to look for ways to use it more efficiently and make it more functional to meet the current and future needs of our members,” says Rider. “That’s what led us down this path.”

Breaking down walls

Many organizations tout the benefits of open-concept offices, including Rider, who says the access to more natural light has been positive for employees. But are there drawbacks to breaking down walls in office spaces?

Work spaces rated

A 2016 study by the U.K.-based Gensler Research Institute rated the effectiveness of various work settings out of a score of five.

Private office:

Shared office:

Workstation with medium panels:

Workstation with high panels:

Desk or bench without panels:

Workstation with low panels:

Room for three or more people:

Rider acknowledges working in a more open office environment comes with adjustments. “Some of the things we’ve done to support our employees in this regard include providing everybody with headsets, and we’ve established open-office etiquette guidelines.”

Read: How to manage diverse needs in converting to open offices

During a study on reorganizing the workspace, Jane Cooper, senior research associate at the Conference Board of Canada, says every person she met had a story to tell. “People feel very personally about their workspaces. And everybody wanted to tell me about what it was like in their workplace and what their work conditions were. So you can certainly say all employees care about it. It’s important to them.”

According to Cooper, many employers said they’re hoping an open-concept redesign will raise employee collaboration and create a trendier office that all generations will find appealing. “But really, it seemed that at the root of it all was money — the high cost of real estate — and not about reducing the footprint of the office,” she says.

That’s a fairly interesting point, adds Cooper, because the biggest cost for many organizations is salaries, not real estate. “So you’re cutting back on a small percentage of your costs possibly at the expense of satisfying your bigger expense, which is your people.”

Read: Employees divided on productivity, stress of work-space configurations: survey

As well, employees’ needs can be quite different, she says. “And that was certainly something we saw. Perhaps some organizations haven’t thought about all the different needs of their different employees.”

The downsides to open offices, notes Cooper, include reduced space for focused work, elevated volume and germs. “Some people feel it lets germs fly around more. We cited one study that suggested people are more likely to get sick in an open plan. That may be true, certainly, if you’re encouraging people to meet closer together.”

In its latest annual survey on workplace mental health, Morneau Shepell Ltd. highlighted employees’ feelings about their workspaces. It found people in unassigned or shared workspaces are less likely to feel valued at work and are more likely to have sleep issues, extreme work stress and work isolation.

Read: Majority of Canadian employees feel employer has duty to keep them healthy

“When we don’t have a place, when you don’t have a name on a door or a desk, you come in and out . . . we’re starting to wonder whether that makes people feel more dispensable, more [like] a cog in a wheel as opposed to a person connected to the organization,” says Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions for Morneau Shepell. “That’s not the intent, but sometimes intent and reality don’t actually align, and it’s how people perceive things.”

Alethea Spiridon is managing editor of Benefits Canada.