RapidBlog: The solution to the open office

West Michigan knows its office furniture, and open offices have become the norm in the last decade. But as panels have been knocked down, cries of protest have sometimes gone up, especially from introverts. Custer's Natalia Connelly helps both champions and critics of the open office understand how to make this trend work for everyone.

“The open office has a lot of critics these days,” begins the Harvard Business Review article by Steelcase veterans Christine Congdon, Donna Flynn, and Melanie Redman. As the article begins, the spread glimmers with the yellow eyes of Chicago skyscrapers, windows gazing with interest into buildings and balconies. The city light buzzes into one great beam. Captured by Michael Wolf, the Chicago photo is titled “Transparent City”; a print not chosen without care. As the article continues, one cannot help but realize that its subject—the open office landscape—is itself a transparent city.

Critics and victims of the open office have spoken up often this year. Why? Open offices have done away with the panels and partitions of the 1980s, in turn allowing employees a smaller surface with more opportunities for collaboration and teamwork.  But, unfortunately, the results have been less than exemplary. While open offices often foster a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they can be damaging to workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Employees in open office environments complain of too much noise and too little privacy, both of which have physical and psychological tolls on performance and wellbeing.

The BBC reports that more than two-thirds of US employees are unhappy with noise levels at work, and 53 percent say other people disturb them when they try to focus. Excess noise arouses the nervous system, causing rising blood pressure and the release of stress hormones (and major frustration). Over time, such stress can give rise to anger and exhaustion—two huge impairments to workplace wellbeing and, fatefully, teamwork and collaboration.

In response to the critics of the open office, Steelcase leaders attempt to quell the cries in their article, “Balancing We and Me,” published in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review. Their solution? Balance. Researchers don’t suggest dismantling the open office, just offsetting it with closed-door options. Open offices aren’t bad in themselves, as long as they’re paired with quieter settings that allow for focus and solitude. The most successful work environments provide a range of spaces—an ecosystem—that allow people to choose where and how they get their jobs done.

Proving their point, Steelcase and author Susan Cain recently collaborated on a line of settings that empower introverts (or anyone suffering from over-stimulation) in the workplace. Susan Cain Quiet Spaces by Steelcase, inspired by Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, offer a range of environments that provide psychologically safe spaces for introverts and anyone needing a withdrawal. Quiet Spaces allow for sensory balance, control over the environment and, most importantly, permission for employees to be alone. They offer an alternative to the noise, busyness and bustle of communal settings in a range of applications, from offices to health settings to schools and beyond. Interested? Grand Rapids organizations seeking this solution or more information can contact local Steelcase dealer, Custer, for more information.

The open office does have a lot of critics these days, and for good reason; most open office landscapes lack the solitude and privacy to balance collaboration and groupwork. But open offices aren’t inherently good or bad; they are only a necessary part of the whole, the ecosystem, the range of choices employees need to allow control over their work environment. When employees can choose where and how they work, they are empowered to be energized in the best ways for them. Providing options is an essential element to the modern organization, and the key to making the transparent city a balanced one.

Natalia Connelly is the brand specialist for Custer, Inc. in Grand Rapids. RapidBlogs are lightly edited and reflect the opinion of the author, not necessarily that of the Rapid Growth Media staff.
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