Workforce & Workplace
Open-Office Floor Plans: One Size Does Not Fit Every Business
Jason Richards
Jason Richards
VP, Energy & Construction Services
Sodexo North America

chicago-bridgeIn offices around the world, the open floor plan debate rages on. Do open office spaces allow for greater collaboration, increased energy and a free flow of creativity? Or do open areas create disruptions and distractions that ultimately kill performance? The answer to both questions is yes. And no.

Companies are investing big bucks in redesigns to reduce overhead costs while improving efficiency. CoreNet Global reports the average space per worker will drop to 151 square feet by 2017, a 33% reduction in less than a decade. Surveys show that 30-40% of worker spaces are unoccupied at any time—an inefficient use of space and money.

What’s even clearer is that employee happiness and satisfaction are key factors that drive engagement, retention and performance. The USC Psychology of Office Space Report found:

  • Unmotivated employees cost the U.S. economy $450-$500 billion annually in lost productivity
  • Employees who are unhappy at work take about 15 more sick days every year
  • The next generation of workers, Millennials, expect to be happy at work

The open office trend started in the 1990’s with Silicon Valley leading the way. Workers were given the freedom to choose how and where they worked. Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon revolutionized how we work by replacing private offices and cubicles with communal offices, low panel workstations and table-like benches.

As the trend caught on, it quickly became apparent that what worked for tech companies may not work for everyone. Successful design is more than a floor plan, the right construction team and good facilities management practices. It’s about understanding how your employees interact to get work done, and creating a setting that helps do just that.

In 2013, a Virginia-based government contractor launched an award-winning design strategy that matched the diverse needs of their employees. One change they implemented allowed mobility and flexibility. They encouraged employees to work from home when convenient and appropriate. To promote collaboration and engagement, they removed offices and created a communal work space. They also provided alternative or “third spaces,” including:

  • Sit and stand work stations in a quiet room
  • Communal spaces to spur impromptu innovation through collaboration
  • Smaller conference rooms and varied meeting spaces
  • Phone rooms that reduce the echo of group conference calls
  • Relaxed lounge areas to encourage casual conversation and promote problem solving

These changes moved the company from a siloed culture to a collaborative environment, and saved the organization $4 million a year in overhead costs.

The open floor debate may never get resolved. But one thing is certain. The right setting can transform the culture of an organization and contributes to employee comfort and sense of well-being. Even small changes, like more natural lighting, better ventilation, soothing wall colors and more plants, can create a happier workplace atmosphere that improves both individual and corporate performance.

Jason Richards is Vice President of Energy and Construction Services for Sodexo USA.

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