Open Spaces Need To Focus On Employees—Not Just Densification

Is the now ubiquitous open office space actually counterproductive? Echoed in dozens of articles, including BBC Capital’s “Why Open Offices are Bad for Us” and Inc. magazine’s “9 Reasons that Open Offices Are Insanely Stupid,” people are questioning this real estate trend.

Megan Spinos, director of strategy and business development at Vocon

Megan Spinos, director of strategy and business development at Vocon

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 employees’ 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 Goodyear’s global headquarters.

Although Spinos works out of Cleveland, she often consults for New York-based companies—which have their own challenges due to the city’s 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, “People too together, too stimulated, actually collaborate less because it becomes a fight for their privacy and their ability to control their environment.”

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 employees’ 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 “heads down” work done—which 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 consultants’ 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. “If you don’t have a choice, that’s really debilitating,” she adds.