NEW YORK CITYâIs the now ubiquitous open office space actually counterproductive? Echoed in dozens of articles, including BBC CapitalâsÂ âWhy Open Offices are Bad for Usâ and Inc. magazineâs â9 Reasons that Open Offices Are Insanely Stupid,â people are questioning this real estate trend.
Megan Spinos, director of strategy and business development at the architect and design firm Vocon, says the problem is not about open spaces but about not understanding employeesâ needs. Vocon focuses on corporate workspaces. It consults on a national level for organizations on office design and workspaces to improve productivity, employee satisfaction and retention. A few of her clients have included CBRE, Forest City Enterprises, Jones Day, the Cleveland Clinic and Goodyearâs global headquarters.
Although Spinos works out of Cleveland, she often consults for New York-based companiesâwhich have their own challenges due to the cityâs high cost of real estate and population density. In 2013, Vocon acquired New York-based Conant Architects.
Across the country, the most common problems start with the intention to build space for collaboration. But Spinos points out all too often, âPeople too together, too stimulated, actually collaborate less because it becomes a fight for their privacy and their ability to control their environment.â
With an office move, renovation or sometimes when a company just wants to make changes, Vocon will design offices around employee experiences. They take an anthropological approach, starting with an employee survey assessing work styles, cultures, likes and dislikes.
Typically, they find 0% to 30% or 35% employee satisfaction in the initial survey. In a second step, Vocon tracks employeesâ space use. It has found that most people were sitting at their assigned seats less than 50% of their time at work. This information shows what spaces employees are seeking to satisfy their needs.
Often they are collaborating with co-workers, on conference calls, at client meetings, in private areas to practice aloud business calls, or just trying to get some âheads downâ work doneâwhich they could not do at their desks. Spinos and her colleagues, in step three, find out what the employees are being asked to do by their leadership. Employees want space that is conducive to doing a good job and to getting their work done.
The consultantsâ fourth part of the process is to select a focus group with a wide demographic cross-section to gather more information. They also talk to heads of departments and others in leadership roles before making recommendations for rebalancing, designing and building new offices.
Finally, Vocon conducts post-occupancy surveys, six months to a year after finishing a project. Spinos says employee satisfaction with their workspace, which started at 30% to 35% generally increases to a percentage satisfaction in the 80s and 90s range. The most frequent comment is that after the change employees feel they have a place to do what they need to do. âIf you donât have a choice, thatâs really debilitating,â she adds.
Some solutions can be addressed with products. For example, Steelcaseâs Brody cocoon-like workstations can convey âIâm working and Iâm in a distraction-free space,â she says. Spinos underscores the most common problems with open workspaces are distraction, commotion and lack of privacy.
All architects and designers will get from HR a basic list that says how many workspaces and offices are needed. Many firms like Vocon will add the dimension of exploring human use of the space. As real estate is an organizationâs second largest cost behind salary, they believe the benefits of the assessment far outweigh any costs.
In Manhattan, Spinos shares that this layer of consulting is on average a two to four week engagement, in the range of and slightly above $20,000.
âPeople are starting to realize they can get a lot more utility out of real estate instead of a place to just house people at desks,â she says. âIf you have happy, productive employees, you have employees with high engagement. They will give everything they have to you. They will be loyal.â