Open to Collaboration: How Can We Turn Open Spaces Into Powerful Work Environments?

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Open space offices are super-cool, and open plan office personnel work together in perfect harmony. Right? Well, as it turns out, things are a little more complicated.


In recent years, open plan offices have officially taken over office culture. The open plan trend – or “open spaces” as they are frequently called – started, as many trends do, in cool and edgy high-tech ecosystems. Before we knew it, major companies were throwing away their cubicles in an attempt to provide their employees with something better. No, they weren’t offering private offices. They were creating a shared working environment, with no walls whatsoever.

How to make the most out of your open space office


Open plan offices bring people together. Everyone sees everyone else. Everyone hears everyone else. The idea is to generate countless co-working initiatives and collaborations. Conceptually, open plan offices are supposed to encourage team members to harness the power of other team members as a central asset. Open plan transparency is meant to increase human collaboration and enhance productivity. But does it?


The Open Plan Collaboration Myth


In 2018, Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban published an article that summarized their research regarding the impact of open space working environments on human collaboration. Their findings showed that contrary to belief, open space offices do not initiate more face-to-face interactions. In fact, they trigger an opposite response. Whether in search of increased privacy or minimized disturbance to other team members, people working in open spaces rely more on electronic media to communicate with their colleagues.


The Plan That Backfired


Open space environments are all about breaking down silos by delivering maximum exposure. Unfortunately, this leads to several problems that impact the office work experience:

  • Zero Privacy: When everyone can see what you are doing, and everyone can hear what you say, that means your privacy’s been severely compromised. Sure, you still have email, but people can read over your shoulder. The problem with zero privacy is that it tends to be bothersome, and when people feel bothered, they are less effective at work.
  • Too Much Noise: Noise is a major distractor, and prevents even the most focused person from maintaining his or her concentration. As a result, many office members resort to wearing huge headphones that isolate them from the ruckus. Yet this solution is far from ideal, since self-imposed isolation further minimizes the chance for collaboration.
  • Lower Employee Satisfaction: A 2018 study conducted by Oxford Economics revealed that employees who report near-constant noise in their workplace are more likely to say they may leave their job in the next six months. Moreover, nearly two-thirds of employees say lack of quiet space for focused work has a negative effect on their productivity, satisfaction and overall well-being.
  • Slower, Stretched-Out Interactions: In their paper, Harvard researchers Bernstein and Turban uncovered that in an attempt to regain privacy, open space employees rely more on email and texts than face-to-face interactions. That actually creates a major productivity issue, since electronic communication stretches out interactions that should take minutes into hours and sometimes even days. Just remember the last time you sent a quick email and got an answer six hours later, at 11:30 PM…


How to design an effective open space office


Reclaiming Collaboration


Still and all, open plan offices have become so prevalent for a reason. They have more than a few advantages and can actually be great collaborative environments. Through thoughtful technical design, open space areas are an excellent breeding ground for collegiality and effective communication. Here are some tips for making the most out of your open space and ensuring that your office interior architecture allows your teams to thrive.

  • Cultivate a connection mindset: Let’s not forget, the world’s greatest innovations came about through human connections. The human mind is programmed to function in a collective context; Common work areas, if properly designed, help serve some basic needs of team members for a sense of belonging, transparency, recognition, inspiration, and personal growth. Encourage your team members to leverage the benefits of the open plan office by continually connecting with each other, helping each other and sharing ideas.
  • Offer Huddle Rooms: If your organization uses open plan offices, huddle rooms are indispensable. They allow small groups to engage in quick and efficient collaborative sessions without disturbing their surroundings. Have these huddle rooms equipped with video conferencing tools, and your staff will enjoy unbounded flexibility by being able to communicate face-to-face with remote stakeholders anywhere, anytime, from any device.
  • Use Sound Masking Technology: Sound masking solutions add low level, unobtrusive background sound to any office environment, which muffles existing office hubbub and reduces the impact of workplace clamor on human ears. Known as “quiet technology”, these solutions make the workplace dramatically more acoustically comfortable.
  • Leverage the Power of Video: If you’ve decided to embrace an open space culture, why not go all the way? Modern video communication technology allows true borderless, silo-free open spaces. Have you ever wished you could quickly call out a colleague who is located on a different floor or in a remote site? Zoom-enabled video technology lets you do just that, by constantly broadcasting team areas scattered across different locations and video conferencing with them easily and quickly. The other sites are muted until someone chooses to unmute one of them in order to communicate, so silence is preserved yet collaboration is instant.


Sharing the Positive Work Experience


Although open plan offices tend to be noisy and offer next to zero privacy, they can still be a great place to work. The secret lies in creating a positive office culture while keeping your teams’ needs in mind at all times. Remember, there are many tools and practices that can be used to enhance privacy and improve room acoustics. Every office has different needs, so start out by finding out what works for you. If your goal is to enhance organizational communication and face-to-face collaborations, then cultivating a connected work culture is a great starting point, especially if complemented by the right video communication and sound masking technology.

Here’s to productive office teamwork! 

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