After years of encouraging employees to work at home, companies are now encouraging them to come home again — home to the office. Companies such as Yahoo! and now HP are restricting work-at-home policies, while others are encouraging the switch by adding more amenities to offices, such as free food, coffee, entertainment and, above all, really cool workspaces.

Bringing everyone back is intended to promote collaboration and innovation. Consequently, organizations aren’t giving everyone individual private offices with opaque walls and doors that shut. Some organizations espouse an egalitarian philosophy that has everyone, including the CEO, in a cubicle. These companies include Intel, Facebook, and CH2M Hill, as well as the office of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.  And Meg Whitman, former head of eBay, took that company’s cubicle culture to HP, where she put all the executives into cubicles and preserved the offices of founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard as shrines.

Some organizations are going even further, by throwing out the cubicle and simply having everyone in a great big room. “In the past, faceless workers toiled in a sea of cubicles, while top executives stole away in closed-door offices. It was eerie, quiet and gray with only the droning sound of keyboard clicks. Then the walls began to shrink,” writes Tom Kaneshige in CIO magazine. “Today, it’s all open space, all the time. Rows of tables have replaced cubicles. The walls have been taken down, and executives work alongside everyone else. It’s noisy. Generally speaking, workers want to be there. The idea of working at home sounds lonely.”

After all, if you’ve abolished email and eliminated meetings, there’s got to be some way for the people to talk to each other.

Square’s new San Francisco office space puts employees at tables grouped into “neighborhoods” based on their jobs. Instead of individual cubicles or desks, these spaces are home bases for employees to place pictures of their kids, store personal items and recharge their computers. For actual work, employees go to small conference rooms called “cabanas,” stand-up tables, the roof deck, or the in-house restaurant or coffee shop.

Other organizations —  particularly ones where people work at home or travel a lot — do away altogether with spaces dedicated to each employee and use a “hotelling”(or, in Europe, “hot-desking”) model, where the employees who do work in the office come in and grab whatever space is available, or reserve special use space such as conference rooms when needed. Like a software license that only counts simultaneous users, the advantage of such a setup is that it saves money on real estate — typically one of a company’s highest costs — because it doesn’t need to provide offices for a lot of employees who aren’t there all the time.

This isn’t just happening in Silicon Valley, but also in places ranging from Ireland to Australia, as companies worldwide embrace the need for innovation. In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 70 to 80 percent of companies are now using open-plan offices of some sort.

On the other hand, employees are finding that it’s hard to do this innovation with all those darn noisy people around. Cynics — like the nearly 200 people who commented on one New York Times article about open offices, as well as the authors of “24 Reasons Your Open-Plan Office Sucks” — say the real reason for the open layouts and cubicles is to save money, and that in reality people are less likely to collaborate because they’re either afraid of disturbing their coworkers or wearing headphones so they can try to get work done.

In fact, reports the BBC, some open-plan offices are *too* quiet, which makes it difficult for people to have conversations without being overheard. What’s needed, notes designer Barbara Armstrong, is access to both collaborative and private spaces, especially since, as one study showed, employees typically spend half their time on individual tasks and only a quarter of their time collaborating.

As it turns out, a recent study shows that the people most likely to be satisfied with their offices were the ones with, you know, offices. In the paper “Workspace Satisfaction: The Privacy-Communication Trade-Off in Open-Plan Offices,” those with enclosed private offices registered the highest overall workspace satisfaction score, followed by enclosed shared office and then three configurations of open-plan offices (i.e. high partitioned, low partitioned and no/limited partitioned), writes Marisa Peacock in CMSwire.

Interestingly, despite their reputation of improved collaboration, satisfaction with “ease of interaction” was no higher in open-plan offices than in private offices, the survey found. “Just because you have an open workspace doesn’t mean you’re collaborating better than others,” writes Peacock. “It takes more than just tearing down walls — it also requires a commitment to technology and process management.”

Related Posts