(Illustration by Jefferson Miller @ARTOFJEFFERSON)

Dilemma of the Month: What’s Wrong With an Open-Concept Office?

Back Article Jun 20, 2024 By Suzanne Lucas

This story is part of our June 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

The CEO decided to have an open-concept workspace, with hoteling tables (that is, no one has their own dedicated workspace) and conference rooms for confidential meetings. He says all the data shows it is great for collaboration, and because we are a hybrid office, it makes sense to have no set desks as people aren’t in every day. The staff is now in a complete uproar and coming to me, the HR director (I also do not have my own office). Help!

I agree that with a staggered hybrid approach (where the entire staff isn’t there on the same day), hoteling can make sense. It can save space and therefore money. Some employees might even prefer it if they like to change up their point of view. 

But many people hate open-concept workspaces and are very territorial without officially assigned spots, and it sounds like your staff falls into that camp. This is a pretty common situation. Pick a church — any church — and ask any long-term member where everyone sits. Every family has its place, even though there are no assignments. Sit in someone else’s spot, and it’s like a collective congregational existential crisis.

Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber wrote at the Harvard Business Review against the idea that open spaces prompt collaboration in 2019. 

“In a number of (open space) workplaces we have observed for research projects or consulting assignments, those structures have produced less interaction — or less meaningful interaction — not more.” And worse, when offices switched from cubicles or office structures to open space, face-to-face contact dropped by 70 percent. (Note that this was before the pandemic.)

However, since the CEO already made this decision, you need to make the current situation work.

Working with reality

One of the most essential jobs in HR is accepting reality. That may seem obvious, but people often spend a tremendous amount of time complaining about the “shoulds” that prevent them from moving forward. You have a hoteling concept with open space. It is what it is. Let’s accept it and move forward.

You don’t get to complain to employees about the problem, as that makes things worse. It also creates an even stronger “us vs. them” dichotomy, which does not help the business succeed.

So how do you help the employees accept reality as you have?

Helping others accept reality

Stephen Covey famously taught, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That is good advice in all situations and works here as well. Listen to your employees’ concerns. They may say things like:

  • I can’t concentrate like this.
  • It’s too noisy.
  • It’s like the Hunger Games every morning, trying to get the coveted window seats.
  • My ADHD can’t handle this.
  • This is stupid, and the research says it’s stupid. 
  • I can’t even keep my office supplies! I can only write with these special pens!

Like the interactive process you’d go through with ADA, you’ll need to help work through solutions with employees. (For the employees with ADHD, the actual ADA interactive process may be necessary.)

The important thing is you truly listen and ask them for solutions. Keep the boundaries firm: This is how the office is. We cannot change that. 

Look for the positive

Studies have shown that the open office concept can and does work for some organizations. How can it work?

If you often have cross-functional teams, having people sit with different people from time to time can help build relationships if people want to build relationships.

Have you ever wondered what your coworkers do all day? An open concept can bring insight into how other departments operate.

Getting a new point of view in the office every day could offer some fresh perspectives on your work.

Employees can gain a fuller picture of what goes on and understand how their part fits in.

Of course, there are also the positives, such as cost savings. Make sure some of that cost savings comes down to the employee! Ultimately, most people will grumble and accept it; it will be a reality after a few weeks. 

Be ready to make accommodations like ordering noise-canceling headphones, actively monitoring the conference rooms to ensure people aren’t camping out there, and allocating prime spots fairly. 

People who say they will quit over this probably will not. People will start to use the same spots every day. Make sure to keep an eye out for cliques and team member exclusion. Without assigned seats, it’s easy for an entire team to exclude one member, Mean Girl style. This is destructive.

But most importantly, you must pay attention to engagement.

Offer feedback to the CEO

Things may be fine with the new situation, or they may be a total disaster. It’s dependent on the work, the number of people in the office and the company culture. As the HR director, your job is to gather data about the impact and take it back to the CEO. If it’s a disaster, you need to demonstrate that after six months and give him the feedback he needs.  

Send questions to evilhrlady@gmail.com.

Stay up to date on business in the Capital Region: Subscribe to the Comstock’s newsletter today.

Recommended For You