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Caged versus Free-Range Offices

My Thoughts on Open vs. Closed Spaces

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mMdern open space

The HQ of the new Joint Venture of BMW & Daimler Mobility Services will be in Berlin. Since the former mall is being renovated for us, the wishes and needs of the employees have also been taken into account. Due to this and the fact that our current offices differ widely from each other, the open vs. closed spaces discussion came up several times. I would like to add a little colour to such discussions.

Over the last years, I had the chance to get to know many different types of offices, not only as a visitor but also as an employee. From open spaces to team offices separated by glassy, movable or fixed walls, to offices with fun areas, breakout lounges, seating groups, phone boxes, creativity huts, meeting/workshop rooms, rooftops, kitchens, lunch areas and much more. At each of these companies, sooner or later there was a discussion about whether or not the layout and resulting opportunities can be improved. You know these debates.

For this reason, I would like to start with the core of the discussion: open vs. closed spaces, by looking at advantages and disadvantages as well as common misconceptions. Next, I'd like to focus on the big picture, briefly outline the link to employee experience, and loosen the debate; after all, it's not a simple 'either-or'.

Let's Stay Black & White

Profile of a Closed Space

In my opinion, closed spaces include cubicles and individual offices. While individual offices in general, but especially large corner offices, were often associated with promotions, these were a huge incentive for many; but that idea is hopefully history. Closed spaces have two major advantages. On the one hand, you tend to be more focused and hence more efficient. On the other hand, it offers a private space for personal matters and phone calls. Both aspects are worth a lot.

Nevertheless, there are also disadvantages involved as well, without considering financial aspects. I have experienced it in both individual offices and open spaces where one sits alone. No matter how focused and efficient the work may be, in the long term it can become isolated or frustrating and end in less engagement. In addition, unintended chats — as described in the previous article — are less likely to happen. This usually leads to reduced collaboration, communication and chances for innovation.

Profile of an Open Space

Open Spaces are the counterweight; in fact, I have spent most of my career in them. This concept seems to be used more and more for the same reasons: it is much easier to get in touch with others, unintentional chats also take place and the chances for collaboration & innovation tend to be higher. As a result, it is also simpler to integrate new colleagues. These are often the reasons communicated.

Apart from these advantages, there are also some important downsides, which are mentioned quite often. Currently, I am a bit sick, and this is most likely due to a family gathering last week; no open space, but pretty much the same: a crowded place without any physical barriers. Furthermore, and mainly caused by all those unintentional chats and all those people around you, this layout is like fertile soil for noise and distraction. And finally, there is less room for private matters & chats.

Well, I would say that open-only spaces are often chosen for financial reasons, without paying attention to the needs of the employees. So even though direct ways of communication in open spaces are often emphasised, in my opinion, this is sort of a lie, at least in most companies I have experienced so far. Can you imagine why? Well, those who work in such offices usually know the issue of high noise levels. Once you know that, would you chat in front of all your colleagues, even if they're not involved? Probably not, and so many other people. As a consequence, communication is mainly indirect. That's unexpected, right?

Modern office hallway

Think Outside the Box

What concept would I choose? Neither of them, because none meets my needs as an employee. Yes, of course, open spaces can break up both technical and hierarchical silos, but there is much more to consider, as I'd like to outline below.

Regarding the offices, there are more options than those described above and also far more decisions to make. The office is a significant part of the physical work environment and consequently the employee experience. This environment helps to shape the company in the long term as it represents the company internally and externally. Beyond that there is even more potential hidden: both the engagement/identification with the company as well as the psychological comfort can be influenced. But visiting Microsoft, Google or SumUp offices or walking through a hip furniture store is not enough. It needs to be understood and reflected on how employees work and also why.

More than Black and White

What do I mean, you should layout your office like a home? Well, I already mentioned a selection of rooms that go beyond the usual discussion and are mostly quite activity-specific. Another option that I recently discovered in an Amsterdam Spaces location are rows of small diner-like booths, on whose walls notes can be pinned. Reminded me of the beer gardens in Brightonian pubs like the 'Good Companion'.

That's just the icing on the cake and only style without any added value? In my opinion, all these different rooms and related opportunities are not only stylish but have an influence on the efficiency of the staff. Of course, there should be a strategic purpose underlying each of these choices, e.g. to enable people to deliver the best performance by giving them both access to all the environments.

Even though I consider individual offices to be unnecessary, there are also smart compromises, such as team rooms with glassy walls. So one is shielded from distractions and noise, but also has the advantages of having colleagues right at one's side. By the way, the loft-like character of such a versatilely designed office space allows employees to become more active, balanced & relaxed. You need a retreat? Or would you rather be with people? No problem at all, it's your choice!

Let 'Em Be Proud

As I just mentioned, the office represents the company and tells more about a company than it might be obvious. When you invite someone you care about to your home for the first time, you usually try to impress them. You clean up and tidy up so that you can be proud of your home. But much more interesting is the personality it embodies. The same applies to offices: shouldn't the employees be proud of the name on the wall but also enthusiastic about what's behind? So that employees like to invite friends and family to show where they work? Make it happen and the engagement & inspiration of employees, as well as guests, will grow, which should not be underestimated.

Booth in a coworking space

Finally, I would just like to note that offices and the general physical environment play an essential role in terms of productivity and engagement, but there are many more aspects to consider; so don't be impulsive. More about that soon, stay tuned!

What are your experiences here? Which aspects of your offices do you not want to miss any more? Do open spaces promote direct communication? Let me know!


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