The 3 Most Important Ways to Make an Open Office More Productive

Jul 31, 2019

In a recent survey of 1,000 American office workers, 76% said they “hated” open offices. Whoa! That’s a lot of office workers emoting a lot of hate.

So, before you start knocking down walls, putting the cubicles into mothballs, and cracking out the foosball tables, all in the name of collaboration and morale-building, consider the three most important concerns your people have about the Open Office Concept.

They are worried about privacy, privacy, privacy.

Will there be privacy for meetings? Will the be able to work and talk without somebody snooping around? And, will they be able to work with some peace and quiet, without co-workers interrupting?

But, giving workers the privacy they need doesn’t require four-walls-and-a-door private offices. The new generation of co-working environments have taught designers how to create cool open offices and provide the privacy workers want.*

Let’s separate privacy concerns into three basic categories; a “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” and how to address them:

Acoustical Privacy

People say they want quiet. But, what they really want, is acoustical privacy. It used to be absorbing sound, using elements like ceiling panels and drapes, was the goal, Now planners know how to use low volume white noise, including natural white noise sounds, like flowing water, to keep conversations private. Ambient music works too, and can help energize the workplace.

There’s also a new concept called “retroreflective ceilings.” By bouncing the sound back down to the talker, it encourages them - through a trick of acoustic psychology - to keep their voices low. (It’s like the opposite of people speaking too loudly when they are wearing headphones.)

Upholstered walls and chairs shaped like eggs (the most famous being the Arne Jacobson designed “Egg Chair”) block out external noise and conversations by about 10 decibels, or about the same effect as wearing ear muffs.

Visual Privacy

When you go to the local diner, are you a “I’d like a booth” kind of person? Most people are. Booths also have a place in the open office design. Not only do they feel cozy, a booth with high partitions provides extra visual privacy, keeping people from seeing the group seated in the booth.

Arranging couches and chairs back-to-back so less people are in your line-of-sight also creates a feeling of privacy. And, giving workers seating choices with their backs against a wall gives them a sense of security, preventing people from approaching them from behind.

Creating special laptop areas along the walls, with USB ports and cell phone chargers, encourages solo work and more alone time.

Physical privacy

There are certain situations that do need walls and doors.

Team meetings, brainstorming sessions, performance reviews or client calls are best in small private rooms. But, by using glass walls and doors, they still reinforce the concept of openness and sharing. Steelcase makes free floating glass cubes meant for small private meetings in the middle of open-plan offices.

And one-person phone booths can keep personal calls private.

Even very large, private Conference Room spaces can work inside the open office. It’s also an opportunity to show workers and clients how innovative your company can be. Designers have used Airstream RV’s, garage doors and famed architect Frank Gehry once dropped a two-story corrugated cardboard conference room into the middle of a vacant Venice, CA airplane hangar for client ad agency TBWA/Chiat. Called the “Fish,” (it looked like a giant trout), it kept meetings private in a spectacular and unconventional way.

*note: Lack of privacy (43%), Overhearing too many personal conversations (34%), Cannot concentrate (29%), Worries that sensitive information can be leaked (23%), Can’t do their best thinking (21%) 

Turning haters into lovers is not easy. But, in the case of helping improve productivity and morale, it’s worth it. For more information on office furniture, industry trends and to stay in touch, please follow Rework on Twitter and LinkedIn.