If you work with a lot of Gen Xers or older millennials, you’ve probably heard a co-worker pay homage to the 1999 cult classic “Office Space” which continues to provide catharsis for anyone facing workspace woes.
But, believe it or not, cubicles weren’t invented as some sort of practical joke. Organizations have tried to adapt their physical workspaces over time to maximize productivity and minimize distractions. And now, with the added foil of remote work opportunities, there’s a balance organizations must seek both in and out of the office.
Does the “Open Office” Really Work?
According to research conducted by the Harvard Business Review, employees’ desire for private vs. open spaces has shifted over time. In 1980, 52% of U.S. employees said they lacked private workspaces where they wouldn’t be distracted. In response, companies adopted those often-mocked cubicles for their offices.
But by the late 1990s, 50% of employees said they needed more access to other people, and 40% said they wanted more interaction. Organizations adapted again by providing open spaces, which, as we’ve seen especially in the tech world, can breed wonderful distractions.
In hindsight, organizations may have overshot “collaborative workspaces” – at the time of this HBS study in 2014, the number of employees who said they couldn’t concentrate at their desk had increased by 16% since 2008, and the number of employees who said they didn’t have access to a quiet place to do work was up by 13%.
A “collaborative” environment doesn’t necessarily mean folks should be constantly interacting and working together. Often, the collaborative process entails working alone or in small groups, then meeting as part of a larger team, then breaking back into smaller units.
Ideally, organizations will offer employees a variety of spaces depending on the type of work they need to do. Sometimes, employees will want entirely enclosed or otherwise private spaces where they aren’t distracted by sound or interrupted by co-workers. In other cases, they’ll want “shielded” spaces, which may be partially enclosed, or use natural barriers like computer monitors and plants to discourage unnecessary conversation. And of course, open spaces would still be available for when employees want or need to have more interaction.
Is “Remote Work” A Solution?
Allowing employees to work remotely isn’t the end-all solution to finding this collaborative balance, but research continues to show that allowing flexible work options can increase employee engagement.
According to Polycom, 98% of respondents believe that remote work options have a positive impact on productivity, since employees can actively choose to work where they are most efficient. There is no need to scrutinize over “private spaces” vs. “shielded spaces” vs. “open spaces” if it’s the employees responsibility to create that environment for themselves.
Employees are well aware of some of the longtime stigmas that remote work breeds laziness and distance from co-workers. But organizations will be encouraged to know that employees believe that remote work can actually have positive effects on collaboration. In the same Polycom poll, 92% of employees agreed that video collaboration helps improve relationships and teamwork, and 62% of employees want access to video technology that will connect them to their colleagues.
According to Jeanne Meister at Future Workplace: “The new technology tools that enable communication and collaboration are actually motivating workers to pick up the phone, seek face time and create lasting bonds. This is the upside of remote work we rarely talk about.”
The state of Vermont believes so much in the uptick of remote workers that in 2019 it began offering out-of-state remote employees up to 10k to move there as a permanent resident.
The balance of privacy vs. interaction in and out of the office is entirely contingent on a company’s industry, culture, and desires of its individual employees. But as we’ve seen, “open spaces” and “remote work” – when provided in the right context – will continue to dominate workplace trends headed into the 2020s.
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