In its time, the open-office concept made good sense: Without partitioned cubicle walls or closed office doors, workspaces encouraged collaboration and creativity. The design facilitated drive-by conversations and brainstorms. The open flow of communication reigned.
The concept transformed our modern workspaces so entirely that coworking companies like WeWork became commonplace and desirable—the offices of the future. But then, of course, came COVID-19.
As leaders navigate return-to-office plans after the pandemic’s height, it’s become clear that our workplaces simply can’t be as they once were. For one thing, employees no longer see modern, open-concept offices as something to covet. If anything, they might not want to be in offices at all.
The Great Divide—Remote vs. In-Office
A recent New York Times article explored the gap between generations when it comes to perspectives on remote work, with the (perhaps unsurprising) conclusion that younger employees would prefer to stay home indefinitely. As one millennial quoted by the article put it, “It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
On the other side of the coin, research from Glassdoor found that 72% of over 1,100 employed U.S. adults said they are ready to return to their company’s office, and a survey of 350 business leaders by staffing firm LaSalle Network found that 70% plan to have employees back in the office in some capacity.
Why the Open Office Is a Nightmare
Once the world returns to a stable sense of normalcy, the reality is, many employees will resume their daily commutes at some capacity to head to the office. So, what’s to motivate them to return to open-floorplan offices? Here are the three key hang-ups for employees returning to in-office work:
When we work from home, everything about our workspace—from the temperature to the snacks—is within our control. And, perhaps most importantly, the noise level is left up to us. Some employees focus better to music, some to ambient noise, and some to complete silence. But when we’re in an open office, we have little choice but to try our best to focus against the backdrop of office chatter.
A recent Fast Company article found that the noise of an open-office floorplan heightens negative mood by 25% at minimum. This kind of stress, stretched across an 8-hour (or more likely 9-hour) workday, can only be assumed to detrimentally impact both employees’ well-being and their work performance.
2. Lack of Privacy and Ability to Go “Heads Down”
The open-office floorplan’s key benefit—the easy flow of communication and collaboration between employees—can also be its detriment. For people in roles that require careful focus, the possibility of a team member dropping by for a chat can be harmfully distracting.
When you work best in isolation, returning to an open office full of conversations and pop-up meetings can be a critical hindrance to productivity.
3. Pandemic Fear of Safety and Social Distancing
2020 instilled a severe—and valid—fear in many of us about the risks of working side-by-side with coworkers for hours at a time. Open offices offer little privacy and separation from the germs of those around us, and as COVID case numbers rise with the continuing spread of the Delta variant, many employees have health concerns about returning to in-office work.
Bridging the Divide
So, where does this leave us? How are team leaders to navigate the careful balance between building team culture and rapport and empowering team members to work in the ways that work best for them?
Being flexible and offering remote work options go a long way toward making employees feel heard, valued, and respected. And on days when team members do need to be in the office, there are plenty of innovations—even for open offices—that facilitate focus and productivity. Quiet breakout rooms for group meetings and phone calls can cut down on office chatter. There are also ergonomic desk domes that offer adjustments to employees’ workspaces that can lend in-office work some of the privacy and protection of remote work.
With Delta on the rise and the future of flex working in limbo, many companies are pushing their return-to-office dates to 2022. The truth is, 2022 will be here in a blink, and essential physical adaptations must be made to open-office settings to keep employees safe and motivated to return. If leaders want to navigate the transition smoothly, the time is now to get innovative and be proactive.
Barry Carson is the CEO of MojoDesk.