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open workspace without offices or cubicles, just shared desks and open floor plan

How to design an open workspace that works

Form follows function: The open office design can work, but not without careful thought and integration.

Andy Bilhorn | December 10, 2015

Did Google get it wrong?

There are two schools of thought on the open office design.

Do a quick online search, and you’ll find a wealth of articles criticizing the open workspace. An op-ed piece from the Washington Post led the way, and the title says it all: Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.

In the pro camp, the perceived rationale hinges on cost-savings—a design approach that “maximizes a company’s space while minimizing costs.”

If you’re considering a shift to the open office—amidst buzzing internet criticism, yet a competing need to cut costs, in part, by being more efficient with your space—what’s the best way forward?

The truth is, the open office design can work, but it requires careful thought and integration.

The office: asset or liability?

The office design conversation exposes a deep underlying assumption—particularly strong in an increasingly virtual world—of how we look at our offices: Our physical workplace is seen as a liability, not an asset.

The great Chicago Architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase, “form ever follows function,” and later stated, “Where function does not change, form does not change.”

If the function of our work has evolved to require more collaboration and greater productivity, but our workplace designs aren’t facilitating either, it shouldn’t be a surprise that leaders look to limit their liabilities by value-sizing the physical workplace.

So how can your physical workplace be an asset that creates value? And how do you measure that value?

These questions can only be answered by talking to business leadership and key employees to uncover how people do their work and understand what drives value—which typically include terms such as collaboration, productivity, and innovation . Yet knowledge workers can have a very hard time defining these terms, and identifying success in these areas is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

This requires inviting your business leadership into the design process to listen to stories of past breakthroughs—and breakdowns.

Office design considerations

This invitation doesn’t just allow form to follow function; it sets up the change process for success with a deep level of ownership for the future workspace by the people responsible for it. It also aligns business support functions throughout the enterprise, asking them to consider how to rally around the business and helping them to ask the right questions.

Considerations include:

  • Design and construction: What form of space is needed for the business to both collaborate and preserve individual productivity? Whose work is interdependent on or independent of each other and what kinds of gathering spaces can facilitate this well? How do we design privacy into the space so folks can shut out distractions?

  • Facilities planning: How do we determine between assigning spaces and giving employees the flexibility of movement without an assigned seat? What technologies do we use to enable the real-time reservations that folks need to do their work?

  • Information technology: How does technology accelerate the ability for people to connect in the space? How can we focus on simplicity by enabling the technology to work without people thinking about it? Are we as mobile as we think? Would our end users agree?

  • Human resources: If we assign space [like offices and window seats] to people based on their status or level in the organization, how do we replace that status when we remove space? How do we handle managers that apply work-from-home policies inconsistently across a workforce that resides in the same space?
The results? Double-digit percentage increases in collaboration, innovation, and wellness with single-digit increases in productivity.

Mini case study: Slalom healthcare client

Slalom applied this approach with a healthcare client that had recently moved into a new workspace. The client’s pilot group, which was older-than-average, included many vocal opponents to the open floor plan who cited the Washington Post op-ed piece as evidence.

We started by listening to employees describe how they worked in their old space. We used that input to work directly with the architect to create day-in-the-life scenarios for employees to see how the new space aligned with the way they do their work and create an onboarding experience that helped them see exactly how to use all the amenities of the new workspace.

Additionally, the C-suite identified several engagement drivers to define how they wanted the new workplace to be described. Our team identified quantitative and qualitative metrics to measure these engagement drivers to determine the success of the project.

The results? Double digit percentage increases in collaboration, innovation, and wellness with single digit increases in productivity.

To quote one director: “The space is incredible, and you can already see people changing their work style and take advantage of the working spaces offered. I know I have! Beyond the actual space, the transition has been seamless—I know what a tremendous lift it was to not just move everyone, but also materially change the working style. To that end, Slalom has done a tremendous job with managing the change, communicating before, during, and after the move, and keeping all the stakeholders engaged along the way.”

Bar chart showing measures of success in open-office transition with before and after look at collaboration, productivity, innovation, and wellness.

Transition success measures

Our healthcare client saw clear gains across the board following the open-office transition. Metrics are a result of a before and after assessment using a 1 to 6 Likert Scale, indicating participants’ level of disagreement (1 – low) or agreement (6 – high) with a statement.

Precision makes perfect

Physical space is sacred to many employees, so a careful and thoughtful approach to transitioning (or re-transitioning) is necessary. The right approach can transform your office into an asset that generates value through employees that are more collaborative, productive, innovative, and healthy.

Andy Bilhorn

Andy Bilhorn is a consultant manager in Slalom Chicago’s business advisory services practice. He is passionate about bridging the gap between data and people to help improve the quality of people’s life at work. Follow Andy on Twitter: @abilhorn.


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