Jobs and the Future of Work

Why flexible workspaces are the key to winning the talent war

Google's communications manager Robin Moroney (L) plays table soccer with a Google employee at a recreational area of their Singapore office July 8, 2013. Singapore's move to tighten regulation of news web sites, already under fire from bloggers and human rights groups, has attracted criticism from an unexpected quarter - large internet firms with a big presence in the city-state who say the new rules will hurt the industry

Google pioneered the open office concept, and many companies followed suit - but it's not for everyone. Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Dan Schawbel
Managing Partner, Workplace Intelligence
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While the concept of open office spaces might seem new, they have been around since the 1940s. Back then, architects convinced companies that open-plan spaces would promote community, connection and inclusion at work.

Fast forward to 2005, when Google hired architect Clive Wilkinson to create communal office spaces and glassed-in meeting rooms at their Mountain View, California headquarters. As with many trends, when well-respected and successful companies innovate, others follow suit.

Today, the vast majority (80%) of companies in America have open-floor offices with minimal or no division between desks. Recently, Walmart announced that their new office in Arkansas, serving over 14,000 employees, would have an open floor plan in order to attract the next generation of talent.

Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban would likely tell Walmart to reconsider based on their findings from a recent study, which showed that employees in an open office spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions. Although employees can see each other when there are no partitions between them, they end up turning to technology instead because they value privacy and silence.

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While open offices may not appeal to all employees, new research finds that younger generations do want them and are willing to accept the drawbacks. We worked with Poly to survey 5,150 workers and found that over half of generation Zs (Gen Z) and millennials desire open offices compared to 38% of baby boomers. Even more interesting is that more than half of Gen Zs say they are most productive working around noise or talking to others, while 60% of boomers are most productive when it’s quiet - which is probably why Gen Zs prefer to work in a physical office instead of from home.

A separate study we did with Kronos backs this up; we found that they prefer to communicate with their team and receive manager feedback in person. Even with all of the collaborative technology that enables them to work remotely, younger generations still value the human touch they can only find in an office.

Since generational preferences around office layouts are different, companies should seek to have flexible workspaces that cater to everyone’s needs. This is why co-working spaces have become so popular in recent years. Younger employees want a sense of community and flexibility so they can be most effective in their work. WeWork, for example, has all sorts of different layouts to cater to different preferences, such as huddle rooms, lounges, phone booths, conference rooms and cafeterias. We all have different work habits and preferences - and so workspace flexibility allows everyone to select the environment that meets their needs when they need it.

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    The question isn’t whether we should revert from open offices to closed spaces. We need to have inclusive office layouts that can meet everyone’s preferences, not just one specific age group. With workspace flexibility, employees who complain about the noise can move to a closed space, while others can stay put. Often corporate decision-making goes to the extremes, having an entirely open space or a closed one, when what people really want is flexibility to make their own decisions based on how they feel in that moment.

    By giving employees options, you put them in control and they can choose the environment that brings out their creativity and productivity.

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