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Entrepreneur’s Notebook—Identify Goals Before Setting Up Open-Floor Office

The argument between open floor plans and closed offices has been a heated topic since the 1960s, when the Quiekborner team, a group of German management consultants, coined the term Burolandschaft, or “office landscaping.”

Back then, the implementation of open office spaces was largely a cost-driven measure. The formula was simple: Reduce the amount of space a person takes up, which reduces the overall space required by the organization, thereby reducing the overall cost.

Today, creating open environments is more about productivity and efficiency than saving costs. In order to retain employees, the office environment needs to become more adaptive to their work habits. The reduction in space is now being looked upon as an opportunity for creating informal meeting rooms, snack areas and project rooms. But before a cultural change can be instituted in a workplace, several considerations must be reviewed prior to a sweeping overhaul.

The open environment has changed over the years. In the 1970s, the term “bullpen” was coined as a definition for office space whereby the perimeter consisted of closed offices and the center was filled with cubicles. Today, open environments have taken on terms such as “virtual,” “neighborhoods,” “hoteling” and “teaming.”

‘Virtual’ office

Companies like TBWA Chiat/Day did away with offices, cubicles and the like and resorted to lockers, checking out laptops and portable phones, and providing sofas, tables, and plenty of free food. This is what it considered the “virtual” office.

Hoteling was adopted as a means to accommodate flexible work hours. The concept is to provide an electronic reservation system for available desk space. Where the average ratio for office space is 250 square feet per person, hoteling space can be reduced to as little as 100 square feet per person.

Michael Hickok of Hickok Warner Fox Architects explains that the purpose of the neighborhood concept is to accommodate groups of staff that work together on projects over long periods of time. In a neighborhood, there may be 12 workstations, five unreserved offices, two project rooms and a number of “hot desks” nearby.

The teaming concept has been created in an effort to bring employees from different departments together to “brainstorm.”

Michael Brill, a workplace designer for Bosti Associates, says that firms like Sun Microsystems and IBM are reverting from the entirely open environment. Brill has spent the past four years surveying 11,000 employees to determine factors that most affect their productivity. His finding: Workers are most productive when given the opportunity to do distraction-free work. This doesn’t mean the answer is an entirely closed environment, but what is clear is that the days of the “sea of cubicles” are coming to an end.

The pros of open office environments have been fostering teamwork, employee interaction, flexibility and leveling of egos. The biggest con of the open office is the complaint of lack of privacy. So what organizations must consider is how to get the best of both worlds. Creating this type of space isn’t easy, so here are some steps to take to overcome any problems.

When considering an open environment for your office, several issues must be considered: the change in culture, effective use of the office space, the departments that are utilizing the space, the work habits of the employees, and the “category” of employees within the space.

The change in culture is probably what causes the most immediate complaints. Concerns of lack of privacy, the amount of noise and inability to concentrate are common complaints. Ways to overcome these concerns have ranged from putting everyone, including the executives, in workstations; to providing enclosed areas for team meetings, game rooms, or coffee/water breaks.

Effective use of office space does not mean cramming the greatest number of people into the smallest amount of space. What it does mean is looking at how people are arranged in a space. Arranging teams and departments that generate the greatest amount of noise or collaboration together and away from the organizational “thinkers” is a good step. Another consideration is varying the workstation panel heights or the arrangement of the panels to either open up or enclose a space, depending on the “category” of employee. In addition, placing noisy devices such as printers, copiers, coffee makers and fax machines in either high-traffic areas or in enclosed rooms can help reduce the amount of distractions.

Noise is probably one of the biggest concerns among newly acclimated employees. This has been so highly regarded that entire industries have adopted a variety of devices and materials to overcome this distraction. Such items include “white noise” that helps mask conversation and other intrusive noises. Employees can also wear headphones to create a greater means of concentration. Building materials such as acoustically sensitive ceiling panels can also be considered.

Determining how well employees can concentrate in their environment involves knowing a little bit more about their natural screening tendencies.

Employee types

Some employees can readily screen out non-work-related stimuli, while others are distracted by the slightest “click.”

Lastly, and probably the least considered, is the work habit of the employees. Rightfully so, organizations cannot possibly take into consideration every individuals’ work habit, but certain common behaviors and attitudes can be seen among particular groups. Sales and marketing may be better off utilizing low-panel-height workstations without white noise, whereas, programmers may be better off with high paneled U-shaped stations to create a greater feeling of privacy.

When considering office space, it’s best to first identify your goals. Do you want to foster collaboration within a department in an effort to stimulate a sense of teamwork, or do you want to create privacy for better concentration?

It’s best to work with specialists who are up-to-date on the latest developments in office design. The workstations of today are clearly different than the cubicles of the past.

What works for one company may not work for another. Examine a number of design concepts to determine which would be best for your company.

David Wise is a real estate consultant/broker for the Equis Corp. of San Diego. He can be reached at wised@equiscorp.com.

Entrepreneur’s Notebook is a regular column contributed by EC2, The Annenberg Incubator Project, a center for multimedia and electronic communications at the University of Southern California. Contact James Klein at (213) 743-1759 with feedback and topic suggestions.

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