Let’s Rethink the Open-Plan Office

The Singapore Business TimesJuly 19, 2019

If you told me a decade ago that senior management would be out of their private offices and embracing open-office concepts, I would have called your bluff.

But in just a few decades, the 21st century has seen the modern workplace transform from having private offices, multiple boardrooms and cubicles, into an open-office layout that encourages collaboration and innovation. The office environment is suddenly a lot livelier.

Ironically, while the open office was initially designed to encourage collaboration and “designed with productivity in mind,” it came with a new set of problems.

As wall partitions are brought down, ambient noise and distractions in the environment increased. According to a recent study titled “Perils of the Open Office,” which surveyed 5,151 office workers across 10 countries (including Australia and New Zealand, China, India and Japan), nearly one in three workers in open-plan offices says that he/she loses more than one hour of work to distractions each day.

The study also found that 40 percent of workers in open-plan offices report an inability to focus while they are at work. And seven out of 10 workers say that they would be more productive at work if distractions were reduced.

If this is such a big deal, one might ask, why don’t we just return to the world of cube farms?

Despite the drawbacks to the open-office environment, more than half of workers still prefer open-plan offices, with the number increasing steadily with the younger generations. As the millennial demographic is projected to become the largest generation of the workforce — making up 75 percent of the modern workplace by 2025 — organizations will need to cater to their needs.

It is clear that the open-office concept is not going away anytime soon, so companies will need to make it work.

Taking a step back, having a few extra square feet of space should not be seen as a problem. Ultimately, organizations just need to be smarter in using their freed-up office space. Large meeting rooms can be expensive with their sophisticated equipment and are not rightly designed for smaller groups and more intimate discussions. Modern workers demand spaces that allow for less-structured, small-group collaborations. By creating smaller, productive workspaces, companies can enable their workers to work together as one team more effectively.

We call these spaces “huddle rooms.” These rooms accommodate up to six people and when outfitted with the right technology, can spur high-energy interactions — perfect for the modern workforce that needs to be agile and highly collaborative.

Huddle rooms can contribute to productivity gains in several ways. Offering a quiet sanctuary and privacy in open-plan offices, they enable workers to remain productive, away from distractions. Huddle rooms also provide workers with the freedom to step away from their desks and into impromptu meetings or conference calls.

Learn more about ‘huddle rooms’— read Huddle Rooms and the Changing Nature of Business Meetings: How Demographics and Technology Are Impacting Workspaces.


Time to huddle

As for workers who are working out of the office or from another country, well-equipped huddle rooms enable on-site employees to connect with them and be an integral part of discussions in real time. Additionally, these spaces can serve as a private space for traveling and freelance workers who may occasionally work from the office.

With real estate and facility costs being one of the largest organizational expenses, huddle rooms can help make the most of a real estate investment. Instead of one or two central conference rooms, huddle rooms can be located throughout an office space in various configurations for small team gatherings.

Finally, the best ideas happen in a space that encourages collaboration and creative thinking. More intimate than corporate boardrooms, well-equipped huddle rooms encourage people to brainstorm and share knowledge, from sharing presentations or ideas on screen. While there is no need to go overboard with equipping the huddle room with the latest and greatest technology, the space still needs to be comfortable, professional and fit-for-purpose.

Besides the bare minimum equipment that a huddle room should have — power points, Internet access, display monitor, furniture to accommodate up to six people, whiteboard or interactive surface to help annotate ideas and workflows, and decent space and design features such as good lighting and acoustics — a good huddle room should also include audio and video conferencing solutions to connect to others outside the room.

However, according to a Frost & Sullivan study in 2018, less than 2 percent of the estimated 32 million huddle rooms globally are equipped with proper video capabilities. This presents a missed opportunity on the collaboration front.

The good news is that challenges such as the high costs of traditional audio and video equipment, complexity in connecting equipment and additional burden to IT are now a thing of the past. Entry-level collaboration solutions today are cost-effective and require only simple set-ups. Cloud-based remote-management tools can also help minimize IT support needs while advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, face recognition and voice tracking help enhance the user experience. The technology advancement is accelerating the huddle-room movement globally.

From being able to meet and collaborate with internal colleagues in more meaningful ways, to working more effectively with geographically dispersed teams, or interacting with business partners and customers, well-equipped huddle rooms are raising productivity by helping people work more efficiently.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that when it comes to building an engaged and productive workforce, these small spaces deserve a big place in an organization’s digital-transformation map.

This article was written by Pierre-Jean Chalon from The Singapore Business Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.