Office design trends tend to come in cycles. The open plan office has been in vogue for years now, with companies from Google to Goldman Sachs to American Express to Bloomberg building workspaces without partitions. Facebook recently unveiled pictures of its drool-worthy, Frank Gehry-designed campus, which will be the largest open floor plan in the entire world. Business leaders thinking about office redesigns often just crib off-the-shelf solutions that have worked well for others and recreate them. As a result, a full 70% of Americans today work in offices with open plans.
The theory is that these open, airy working environments foster creativity, spontaneous collaboration, and transparency among employees. However, we’re quickly discovering that this approach is far too simplistic. In practice, different personality types thrive in different work environments. Open plans work fabulously for extroverts who are energized by collaborative experiences, but are less helpful to introverts who need to be left alone to recharge in order to be productive. It is also true that different types of work call for different kinds of space configuration: even the most social of workers sometimes need silence to bang out a draft of a speech or focus on crunching numbers for a report.
Max Chopovsky, founder of Chicago Creative Space, a firm that helps companies create thriving office cultures through design, believes that business leaders focus so much on what has worked for others that they don’t spend enough time thinking about the particular needs of their own employee base. "There’s no secret sauce that’s applicable to every company out there," Chopovsky says. "Companies always say they want Google’s space and culture, but that’s all wrong. They shouldn’t strive to be anyone else; they should strive to be themselves."
A smarter solution, he says, is for business leaders to devote time to carefully observing the behaviors of their workers before making any major decisions. His underlying thesis is that it is impossible to completely manufacture culture; instead, culture bubbles up from the habits and rituals of employees. There are major differences in personality types depending on industry. Some fields, like advertising or marketing, require plenty of brainstorming and teamwork, while other fields, like engineering and accounting, require plenty of private space. The best thing an employer can do is identify what makes their particular office community tick, and find ways to encourage it to thrive.
Values also differ from company to company. These ideals and belief systems tend to emerge from the vision of the company’s founders, who naturally hire people who share their outlook. So, for instance, if a startup’s founders believe that the best ideas emerge from late-night conversations over foosball and beer, they are likely to bring on people who enjoy working in similarly casual environments. On the other hand, if the founders started the company with young families in tow, they might hire people who believe in maximizing the 9-to-5 workday so that they can leave promptly to have dinner with their kids. Each of these cultures will result in different workspaces.
And even if they share similar values, any population of workers will have a range of preferences in terms of working environments. So it is always important for employers to offer a range of possible workspaces for employees to pick from on any given day. "A good office resembles a good home," Chopovsky says. "Different rooms in the home fulfill different needs and are used at different points in the day." A kitchen, for instance, is where families gather to spend time together. When someone needs a quiet moment to read, they might hide away in the den or a book nook. The same logic applies to an office.
One of the most recent trends in office design is to have offices without any assigned seating at all. At GlaxoSmithKline’s new offices in Philadelphia, employees can show up to work with their laptop and pick whatever space makes the best sense to them at any given moment. If they need to have a brainstorm session, they might meet with their team in an open corner of the office; if they need to do a conference call, they might go to a quiet room; if they are feeling social, they might hang out in the snack room.
Kevin McCarty, the president and CEO of Chicago-based business consulting firm West Monroe Partners, has embraced the no-assigned-seating policy at each of the company’s nine locations in North America. He arrived at this format after studying the behavior of the company’s workers who fall into two categories. The business consultants on the team spend most of their week meeting with clients at locations across the country. The technologists on staff spend hours coding and solving complex computing problems, often with their heads down and headphones on.
"The key is getting these different workers to collaborate, rather than just putting them in their respective corners," he explains. "We believe that this breaks down a lot of barriers that exist in corporate America, where there is often consternation between the accounting folks and the marketing team and technology people. We see this with our clients all the time."
The template of each of the offices is the same, to promote a consistent culture within the company. But within each office, there is a lot of fluidity, as employees can choose where they want to work on a given day or week. "They can shift depending on the project they are working on or who they would like to be mentored by. They might spend the day sitting next to someone with whom they feel comfortable asking questions." The offices all have "war rooms" that people can book if they need a quiet space to get a lot of work done before a big project is due.
There is no hierarchy in this system, but there is also no permanence. This can feel uncomfortable to people who have been used to owning a particular spot in the office. But McCarty has found that once employees understand the dynamics of the West Monroe office culture, they tend to voluntarily sit in different places every day, based on their mood or their work needs.
Employees can also choose to work from home if they want. McCarty’s goal is to create such a fun and productive working environment that people would rather come into the office than stay home. "A lot of consultants travel during the week, but they want to be at the office, because it’s just the place to be," McCarty says. "They want to come together to see each other and celebrate a hard week’s work. We want to create a place with a great vibe and mojo, so people really choose to be here."