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08 Mar 2016

The open office: breaking the mould

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Employers shouldn’t need to choose between staff satisfaction and productivity, says Jeff Miller

The modern office is failing. This is hardly a revelation, but it’s a truth that employees around the globe endure day-in and day-out without so much as a peep of protest. Employers, too, are very aware of how their offices are pinching nerves, both literally and figuratively, and many companies are caught chasing the next big trend.

Such was the case with the open-office concept, which began its rampant spread to more than 70% of existing offices more than a decade ago. A grand epiphany for many, the open office was heralded as a radical shift against conventional cubicles and private offices that was certain to boost communication, improve workflow and send ideation skyrocketing. Unfortunately, despite designers’ best intentions, new and historical research from the Academy of Management Journal, among other sources, shows the opposite to be true. Increased noise, lack of privacy and more uncontrolled interactions in open offices have all been associated with higher levels of stress and a diminished ability to concentrate. And while the open office still curries favour with a younger generation of workers, in reality its only favourable attribute is that it is a symbol of a more democratic workplace. But while employee satisfaction might increase with open offices, productivity plummets and, unless you’re a Google or Apple, companies are constantly choosing between the two – sometimes without knowing.

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But employee satisfaction and high productivity levels don’t have to be mutually exclusive. At Poppin we we’re developing products that marry the best intentions of the open-office concept with closed elements that provide more controlled spaces where solitary and small-group collaborative work can take place undisturbed. There are already products that work along these lines and a number of designers and manufactures are responding to the pushback against the open office. But costs can be high, with some “innovative solutions” easily hitting the $10,000 mark for a single unit. And these products are often hard to source and have long lead times, leaving smaller and growing companies priced out of the market or stuck with whatever they can find closer to home.

Today’s office furniture should be more aligned with, and designed to meet, the needs and budgets of emerging companies. These products should, at the core of their functionality, be able to grow with the company and allow the flexibility to create multiple environments most suited to the work being performed at any given time. The open office/closed element concept accomplishes even more by helping companies avoid costly renovations and build outs. Fitting an open space with modular furnishings that can be easily reconfigured means fewer walls are needed. This maintains an open atmosphere and gives employees the ability to create the workspace they need, while mitigating the negative psychological and productivity-hindering impacts associated with completely open-office environments.

Jeff Miller is vice president of design at office specialist Poppin

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