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Open-concept workspaces: efficient or deficient?

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The “bullpen” at Barclay Street Real Estate Ltd. Photo courtesy of Barclay Street Real Estate

The open-concept workspace has been around for many years. In fact, it appeared as early as the 1950s in Germany where two brothers, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, designed workspaces with few walls or partitions. This movement in open-concept office space planning was referred to as Bürolandschaft, which meant “office landscape” in German, and the space had just a few green plants and very minimal furniture. The goal was to promote communication, inspire collaboration and build a sense of community and camaraderie amongst co-workers.

While the idea of open-concept workspaces made sense, employees actually desired more privacy. In 1968, American designer and former president of the Herman Miller Research Corp., Robert Propst, introduced the infamous work cubicle, which was originally known as the Action Office system; a system with removable partitions that allowed office workers to have some privacy, but also provided the option to view other “offices” and employees simply by standing up.

Fast-forward to 2016 – while many Calgary companies opt for open-concept workspaces, the variety of tasks and projects that employees are assigned have resulted in the open-concept workspace evolving into “flexible” workspaces. Flexible workspaces offer employees different areas to work in and the ability to complete tasks more efficiently and effectively. If an employee requires total privacy for a conference call, for example, private offices are available. And if an open workspace is needed for group meetings, team building and/or collaboration, then there is an area for that too.

“Work is changing – evolve or die. It is driven by technology and globalization; we can’t expect work to be done the way it was done 50 years ago,” says Robyn Bews, executive director of WORKshift Canada, an organization dedicated to changing the way people work by encouraging the adoption of flexible work practices. WORKshift is the established thought leader and authoritative voice on flexible work practices in Canada.

In today’s corporate Calgary, office workers need a variety of different workspaces, depending on their tasks and projects and the individual themselves. According to Bews, companies should consider adopting more open and flexible workspaces for their employees. “The move to more open, flexible, and collaborative space allows for more serendipitous meetings. More than 50 per cent of offices are empty at any given time of day. (Don’t believe me? Walk your floor). Why would a company pay for expensive, underutilized, static, traditional, uninspired and inflexible space for employees? Data shows that employees only really socialize or collaborate with other employees that are within 150 feet of their desk.”

In discussing current commercial real estate trends in Calgary, David Wallach, president of Barclay Street Real Estate Ltd., says, “In the past, companies chose office-intensive setup over open-concept or “bullpen,” primarily for reasons such as culture, hierarchy and tradition. Today, while the majority of tenants looking for a partial or full bullpen concept are doing it as a cost-saving method, the matter of organizational culture is also factored in. In addition, the choice of layout is seen as a way of accommodating millennials, who, as a group, are the largest proponents of the layout. This arrangement is well suited for a group-oriented generation that values the opportunity to socialize, work in teams and get help from co-workers.”

And while many Calgary companies are going the way of the open-concept workspace, there are still several that value and seek out traditional office layouts – it isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario. “The open-concept trend follows the setup of many dot-com companies, who adopted it as their preferred office layout. In Calgary, we don’t see a flood of tenants completely parting from traditional office space build-out into completely open environments. For example, the oil and gas industry – so far – has remained very traditional with their office layout. That being said, in order to reduce costs by leasing less space, we are increasingly seeing a combination of personal offices and open, shared area adopted by the industry. While this setup comes in every shape and form, most will have perimeter offices with the bullpen in the middle. One exception we noted recently was the inverse; offices in the middle and open space on the perimeter, which allowed for more natural light to be let into the space. If we had to guesstimate, our market is probably moving to 30-35 per cent bullpen with the balance remaining traditional office layout,” says Wallach.

Barclay Street Real Estate has used an open-concept work environment for more than three decades and it doesn’t look like they’ll be changing any time soon. “It speaks to our culture and not about saving space.” There are, however, both positives and negatives to working in an open-concept workspace. On the positive side, open-concept workspaces provide “better flow of information, increased collaboration and support that our people receive from each other by sitting in an open floor plan. We have observed that new Barclay Street employees integrate faster, both professionally and socially, which contributes to our culture of openness and respect. This is important, not just from a management prospective – no one can hide behind a closed door!” But Wallach goes on to say that there are also negative aspects of working in an open-concept workspace. “From time to time, it would be nice to have an office where the door can be closed to have a quiet space. The bullpen can become noisy, but we have the boardrooms to use for professional phone and conference calls. As for employees – the downside is that they can’t hide if they’re slacking on the job: we can see you!”

While most of us envision open-concept workspaces as having colourful funky furniture, lots of big windows and glass, large computer screens that dominate the landscape, and coffee stations scattered all around, this is not always the case. Bews says, “It’s not about foosball tables and weird chairs. It’s about creating useful, inspired space that works for both employees and the employer.”

By simply creating open and flexible office spaces, a company could increase their productivity and bottom line. And while some individuals prefer, and require, more traditional office space with walls and a door, many employees seek out wide-open flexible workspaces so they can better collaborate, coordinate and build a sense of community and camaraderie. Research conducted by WORKshift Canada shows “antiquated office space and technology are a deal-breaker for Canadian employees.”

How does your office space contribute to your company’s productivity and bottom line? It may be worth the time and effort to find out.

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