Anyone who has worked in the hustle and bustle of an open office environment knows that it often has distracting downsides.
And yet the trend has endured, thanks in part to by influential business executives like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.
But now some companies are changing the script. Earlier this month, Uber, the wildly popular ride-sharing service with offices in downtown San Francisco, unveiled plans to move to 423,000 square feet of office space in the city. Although at first Uber’s plan looked like the classic open-office layout, complete with potentially noise-trapping glass surfaces, it soon became clear that the firm intended to move away from the traditional open-office environment.
Instead of vast floors of workers buzzing next to each other, Uber’s avant-garde plans involve organizing its new offices into ‘neighborhoods,’ creating communities of 30 to 60 employees.
“There’s a big shift,” says Bernice Boucher, Managing Director in JLL’s Strategic Consulting Group and the Head of Workplace Strategy for the Americas. As Boucher reviewed Uber’s plans in an article in Fast Company, she recognized the company’s desire to switch to activity-based neighborhoods – and she’s convinced that these offer a kind of flexibility that open offices do not.
Joining a workplace community
More employers have been pushing to shift their employee workspaces “from ownership to membership,” says Boucher. “Instead of owning a desk, you’re shifting to membership in a neighborhood.” The change creates a sense of belonging that triggers collaboration and aids productivity.
Understanding how employees work is key to creating neighborhoods that contribute to productivity. As an example, during the process of reinventing its corporate headquarters workplace at Aon Center in Chicago, JLL regularly asks for input from employees about how they work. This information is helping drive the make-up of the neighborhoods that are being designed into the new work space.
“You’re looking at all the work activities that a group will engage in, in a given day or a given week,” Boucher continues. “Will they have the right settings to support collaboration, concentration, and also connection?”
She cites a Gartner study that indicates 80 percent of work today is collaborative. “You want to provide people with the right spaces, it’s as much a tool as technology,” she adds.
Just as a good neighborhood might have its own small green space, these new office layouts include small ‘huddle rooms’ just big enough to handle four people. Boucher’s clients often tell her that four out of five employee meetings involve two to four people. And the huddle rooms double as quiet office space that a single employee can retreat to.
Another key feature of the new neighborhood layouts are project rooms, which a single team may use over the duration of an assignment. The team can leave its work on display in such a room, without needing to clear out for other groups. “Giving project teams the ability to own a space until the project’s done allows them to feel like they have a home base,” says Boucher.
The mix of small rooms and open floors also allows teams to customize the neighborhoods based on their needs. Boucher mentions working with one company whose marketing team turned the floor into a hive of activity, constantly buzzing, with huddle and project rooms serving as quiet respites. Across the office, the finance team had flipped the system, keeping a quiet floor with activity and collaboration happening in the rooms.
Getting creative to save space
Neighborhoods are turning out to make good business sense. Where a lot of companies saw open floor plans as a chance to maximize real estate by jamming as many desks as possible into a room, explains Boucher, neighborhoods allow companies to find more creative ways to save space. “You can do free seating,” she says, cutting back on the number of individual desks based on how teams are using the alternative spaces. “You can actually get more efficient with space without having a negative impact on the productivity or effectiveness of that team.”
Boucher is careful to add though, that the best laid floor plans will only function with open communication. “[There] are conversations and negotiations and compromises that need to be made before people move in,” says Boucher. “Most people will just complain and say ‘Oh my, can you believe what Joe is doing, listening to the radio on his speakers?’” To avoid everyone ganging up on poor Joe, Boucher and her team train clients to have the necessary etiquette conversations ahead of time.
“I’m hoping that Uber, in their model for moving into this new exciting building, which could create a lot of great energy, is also thinking about how work needs to happen in that environment,” says Boucher. Once they’re moved in, they can’t expect employees to enforce the rules – and employees often feel awkward doing so.
Instead, managers and teams need to regularly revisit the protocols for working in these environments and ensure that new employees are informed of the rules, regardless of whether they work in an open-plan or an office neighborhood set-up.