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Does an Open Office Really Work? A Robert Half Survey Says It Depends

Robert Half, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, Facebook, Google, WeWork, Open Concept Work Space, Human Resources, Open Office

By Jack Stubbs

“We see companies spending a lot of money on new layouts and making some subtle changes that increase productivity…it’s about really serving employees in terms of what’s important to them,” said Karen Warren, district president for Robert Half in San Francisco.

There has been much debate recently about companies’ decisions to implement an open floor plan in the office or opt for a layout more oriented towards private individualized workspaces. Robert Half, national staffing firm with 325 locations worldwide, recently added another perspective to the conversation.

The surveys were developed by Robert Half and conducted by independent research firms. The Human Resources managers’ survey includes responses from more than 300 HR managers at companies nationwide with 20 or more employees. The workers survey included responses from more than 1,000 U.S. professionals aged 18 and older working in a variety of office environments. The surveys examined the pros and cons of different office space expressions, such as private offices, private cubicles, a completely open floor plan or some combination of private and open space.

According to Warren, the conversation about office orientation has been a long-term priority for employers. “I think the discussion [about workspace] has been on the table for quite some time in the Bay Area, especially concerning collaboration and retention…everyone is taking a look at first and foremost how to promote additional collaboration in the office environment,” she said. And while retention of employees is a key concern, companies also have longer-term financial considerations as well, according to Warren. “It’s also a question of how companies create growth and increase revenue,” she said.

The challenge of how to promote collaboration and productivity—as a means to expand their employee base and generate revenue—is not an easy one to solve, with the Robert Half survey presenting somewhat varied results: 65 percent of workers surveyed cited that open floor plans helped with collaboration, while others revealed that different configurations enhance an atmosphere of collaboration. 60 percent cited that private offices enhanced collaboration, while 69 percent responded that private spaces such as cubicles can encourage collaboration.

The statistics back up a larger trend, according to Warren, which is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for companies looking to retain their talent. “Each company has [its] own approach and something that’s unique to [it]…what they’re hoping to achieve and what’s important to their current employees,” she said.

Oftentimes, the ideal solution is for companies to implement a variety of office space orientations in order to maximize employee productivity, according to Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half. “It’s not practical for every employee to have a private or even semi-private office, but employers should pay attention to the overall workplace design to ensure there are both collaboration spaces and places for employees to quietly get work done,” McDonald said following the release of the surveys.

The surveys also found that employees who work in open floor plans and semi-private cubicles cited the lowest productivity levels while those with private offices reported the highest levels of productivity. Additionally, 59 percent of employees working in private offices reported their their workspace makes them feel relaxed. Conversely, those working in semi-private cubicles (31 percent) and those working in open floor plans (25 percent) reported the highest levels of stress.

Companies are also constantly striving to update and redesign their space, according to Warren. “[Many] of the companies in San Francisco and the Bay Area that are in current growth mode are in an office remodel. 56 percent of the companies that we surveyed have recently undergone some type of office remodel…companies are constantly updating what their offices look like,” she said.

Warren also noted how a larger array of companies—such as non-profits, healthcare organizations, and financial services organizations—have identified the need to enhance collaboration and subsequent productivity in the workplace.

Warren believes that much of companies’ innovation in workspace orientation in recent years has arisen out of necessity, especially in San Francisco and the Bay Area. “A couple years ago…businesses had to come up with new [floor concepts], because there wasn’t a lot of space to be had during the tech boom,” she said.

Larger trends have also shaped tech companies’ shifting strategies in how they attract their employees. “Historically, tech companies like Facebook and Google were advertising offices with various amenities that would encourage employees to work and stay there. We’re not seeing that as much now, but rather companies wanting to promote work-life balance,” Warren added.

An attainment or approximation of this work-life balance is also mutually beneficial for the employee and the employer, according to Warren. “If companies are listening to their employees, the employees are going to think that they are investing in them and their future, and they’re more likely to stay and grow in the organization,” she said

The debate about the best workspace configuration has no definitive answer—with the recent surveys showing varied results. However, when companies are striving to retain their talent, the orientation of the workspace has very tangible impacts and consequences, a fact that employers are well aware of, according to Warren. “When someone walks out the door, they walk out with knowledge.”