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Open Office Space: Everyone's Doing It... But Does That Make It Right?

by Keith Fentress / February 25, 2016

It seems that every day I read yet another article, sometimes online, sometimes in the newspaper, about an organization adopting an open office environment design that supports both mobility and collaborative work practices. Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about Citigroup’s new 39-story high-rise headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

Bankers, Lawyers…

The article states that, “The nation’s third-largest bank is making the shift to an open-plan layout—a vibe more identified with tech startups than global banking conglomerates—where no one, not even CEO Michael Corbat, will have a door. Most employees won’t even get their own desks. The layout at the new headquarters is minimalist and more egalitarian. Because most desks aren’t assigned, employees must lock up their family photos and personal tchotchkes each night. Everyone gets a window view—but no one gets complete privacy.”

The article goes on to remind us that Citigroup is moving from Park Avenue offices that, “feature a style that could be called midcentury banker: dark mahogany paneling, red leather walls and bookshelves filled with thick volumes of Delaware law.”

Hmm… Where have I heard that change scenario before? Seems like just a few weeks ago I posted an article written by our senior architect about his attorney converting his office from “dark walnut wood paneled walls, book shelves stocked with law books, massive desks, and heavy leather chairs” to a contemporary open layout justified by the profession’s new-found mobility options.

And the beat goes on.

… Everyone?

There is no question that the open office/mobility trend has moved from one end of the office spectrum to the other. It has gone from Silicon Valley to Wall Street and D.C.’s K Street at a whirlwind pace over the past few years that only rivals the explosive pace of the growth of the technology that supports this trend. It is now beginning to seem like everyone is doing it. But there is also growing evidence, and this fact personally bothers me as well, that it might not be right for everyone.

I just read an article by Chloe Morrison at Nooga.com entitled, “Opinions Differ on the Effectiveness of Open Offices.” The article addresses both the pros and cons of the open office environment. It is not the first article I have read on this subject and will undoubtedly not be the last. It concludes with the observation: "It's not for every business and it's not for everyone." The article was useful in its discussion of the pros and cons and observant in its conclusion. But it failed to take us one important step further; how can we determine which businesses and which individuals are good candidates for thriving in an open office environment.

I have read a number of articles that discuss the relative potential for individuals to be comfortable in an open office environment based on whether they were introverts versus extroverts. Unfortunately, I believe that an assessment based principally on this factor overly simplifies the issues involved here.
Let me explain by using my own virtual company’s experience as an example.

Not Your Traditional Open Office Environment

Fentress, Inc. has been a virtual company since its inception over 28 years ago. All of our employees, including myself, work from home offices. Although a home office is not the same as an open office environment, both represent significant departures from the traditional office setting. In this regard, my experience in attempting to select employees that are likely to thrive in a virtual organization may offer some parallel insights toward answering the question, “How can we determine which businesses and which individuals are good candidates for thriving in an open office environment?”

My experience has shown that about a third of the employees hired to work in a virtual home office cannot work effectively from home. Based on the references I have spoken to when hiring employees, these same people are able to be productive in a traditional office setting. I have had employees leave the company because they could not be productive working from home, but went on to take responsible positions in traditional office settings.

When considering if prospective employees are the right fit to work virtually, I try to find out the following: Are they self-starters? Can they work independently or do they require supervision? Are they technology savvy? Do they work well in a team? Can they communicate effectively and clearly?

These are multiple and complex personality and work practice traits and identifying them early in an employee selection effort is the key to avoiding a misstep for the company or for a prospective new employee. I believe that the same need for an early identification of the open office compatible personality and work practice traits applies to a business or an individual considering an open office environment.

As I noted in a previous paragraph, articles that discuss the potential for individuals to be comfortable in an open office environment tend to base this conclusion on their being introverts versus extroverts. If I am correct that an assessment based solely on this factor overly simplifies the issues, then how do we identify which individuals and businesses are compatible with an open office environment?

This is a subject that warrants more space than can be devoted in this blog. Please stay tuned. There’s more to come.

Tags: Open Office Design

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include change management, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys adventure travel and outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.