How to Make Sure People Won’t Hate Your New Open Office Plan

Organizations are rushing to implement open office spaces in hopes of retaining talent, encouraging cross-functional collaboration, enhancing exposure to different kinds of expertise, and accelerating creativity and innovation. Sometimes this works, but often it doesn’t. In our research, we discovered that success with open offices may have as much to do with how people feel about the space — something called place identity — as with the space itself.  When place identity is higher, employees report more engagement in their work, more communication with their peers, and a stronger connection to the company. Our study uncovers three things that leaders can do to increase place identity when moving to open office spaces.

Organizations such as Google, Facebook, Genentech, IBM, and Microsoft have devoted millions of dollars to the redesign of their workspaces, replacing cubicles and traditional private offices with large open spaces, smaller team spaces for collaborative work, and pods for private conversations. Furniture is adjustable so that it can be moved and modified to meet an employee’s needs and adapt to rapidly changing work demands. The hope is that these spaces will enhance the sharing of ideas, expedite decision making, and engage employees, ultimately driving more-innovative products and services. As Facebook’s Chief People Officer said about the company’s 430,000 square-foot open office design, “It really creates an environment where people can collaborate; they can innovate together. There’s a lot of spontaneity in the way people bump into each other, just a really fun collaborative creative space.”

Despite optimistic assertions about the benefits of open office space, outcomes are mixed. In some cases, open-plan office designs are reported to increase collaboration, employee satisfaction, and communication, but in others these new spaces are criticized for creating distractions, reducing privacy and autonomy, and undermining employee motivation and satisfaction.

In our research, we found that the problem may go beyond the physical features of the space itself, and come down to whether employees feel the space aligns with their self-image and enhances their sense of belonging — their place identity. The concept of place identity was first introduced by environmental psychologists who found, for example, that identifying with a particular national park led to more conservation behaviors, volunteering, and a willingness to pay higher entrance fees.

We examined the roll-out of open office spaces in a global Fortune 500 company. In concert with our coauthors, Sara Värlander, Bobbi Thomason, and Heather Altman, we talked with workers and collected survey data from over 300 employees in five different countries – France, Israel, India, the U.S., and China. We discovered that employees who felt a greater sense of place identity (as measured by the degree to which workers perceived the space as being important to them and a meaningful place to work, felt a sense of connection to the space, were proud to be a part of the space when visitors arrived, and felt the space was a reflection of them) perceived the physical features of the space differently. For example, they experienced the space as more collaborative, social, flexible, energetic, and comfortable, while those who didn’t develop place identity saw the space as noisy and cluttered. Workers who felt a greater personal connection to the space were also more engaged and enthusiastic about their work, believed their communication with colleagues and managers was of higher quality, and felt a greater attachment to the organization.

As one engineer told us, “It’s our place! It’s like another entire thing…. There’s a sense of my stuff, our stuff.” Another worker said, “In a traditional office, we might talk, but not as freely. [This space] is ours. It is our space.” These sentiments were shared again and again.

We also uncovered three important things leaders can do to build place identify and transform workers’ response to new open workspaces.