I began my career as a technical writer for a software company at the end of the 1990’s. This was right before the dot com bubble burst, and everyone was in love with the tech industry. Much was being made about the office spaces and employee perks of various tech startup companies. Jeans everyday. Free food and coffee. Nap rooms. Foosball tables and arcade games. Tech companies were pulling out the stops in order to keep their employees in the office and working. I’d see pictures of cool people in converted warehouses with no walls and ultra-modern minimalist furniture and I’d feel so envious. I worked in a suburban office park. You couldn’t tell my software company from the insurance office down the hall. I had a regular old office with walls that went all the way up to the ceiling and a door. How lame.
The tech bubble might have burst but the open office trend only got stronger in the early 2000s. When management found out it was way cheaper to just have a bunch of desks in the middle of an empty room rather than build out offices for everyone, the office configuration that made its mark in tech companies and advertising agencies began appearing in more traditional sectors such as accounting, engineering and even law.
We don’t have to waste valuable time listing all the problems that an open office creates, though several come to mind immediately. Lack of privacy is probably at top of the list. Cube farms aren’t much better in that regard–anyone in that configuration can tell you there are no secrets among cube mates. The open office is supposed to encourage collaboration—and it certainly can, especially if employees are doing the same or similar work. The problems start when collaboration stops and focused work begins. Open offices allow for constant interruptions, and recent studies show that productivity actually declines in an open office environment.
Beyond the open office’s negative effect on actual work output is the emotional impact that it can have on employees. The violation of psychological privacy erodes productivity, lowers morale and breeds distrust. Employees in cubicles are interrupted 29% more than employees in private offices, creating stress and exhaustion. Earbuds have become the universal “don’t-even-think-about-talking-to- me” signal, whether people are actually listening to music or not.
The open office concept is dead. Millennials killed it. We should thank them.
Rising up in place of the open office are flex offices (also known as hybrid offices) and remote offices. Flex offices might have a variety of workspaces: private offices, open workstations, conference/collaborative spaces and soundproof work areas. There is no assigned seating; your work environment is dictated by the type of work you are doing at any particular time.
Additionally, the number of remote workers continues to grow in the U.S. In 1995, just 9% of the population telecommuted. Today, that number is closer to 40% and continues to climb. Employers have a lot to love in this arrangement: in addition to reduced overhead, employees who telecommute are more productive, have higher morale and are less likely to leave their position or organization.
In order for both of these models to be effective, it requires a workforce that is comfortable with technology and sees less of a separation between “work time” and “home time”. For the Millennials who grew up on the technology that keeps us in constant connection, those lines have always been blurred. Millennials don’t view remote working as a perk. It’s an expectation. It’s life.
Employers are responding, for several reasons. One is that many companies are very focused on attracting and retaining Millennials and are completely changing their workforce cultures in order to do so. Another is that, for many employers, remote set-ups are cheaper. What’s better than low overhead? Lower overhead!
A third reason, and perhaps the most compelling one for organizations considering doing away with cube farms once and for all, is that the company will usually get the better end of the deal. Studies show workers in a remote environment are more productive and work 5-7 more hours per week then their in-office counterparts.
Much data exists to prove the economic benefits of both flex and remote offices. I encourage you to reach out to your organizational leaders to explore the possibilities.
Or, you can use the Les Nessman approach. Don’t forget to air-knock.