The traditional open office is dying, and for good reason —  but a modified version is emerging as a winning solution.

Our joke around Robin, where we’re trying to modernize the open office, is that the only ones who seem to like open offices are the architects who design them. Employees find the layout long on interruption and short on privacy. As a result, collaboration plummets (70 percent drop in face-to-face communication) and top performers run for the doors (more than 1 in 10 employees have resigned or have considered resigning as a result of the design). Studies have also shown that when companies switch to an open office format, sick days spike by 62 percent. Are workers sick, or sick of this type of workplace? Facilities professionals, armed with no data on exactly how the space is failing their colleagues, find themselves stuck between unhappy workers and a putative fixed layout.

So if the open office is so unpopular with employees, why is it so popular with employers? Because the alternative is somehow even worse. Impersonal cubical farms spent years on the wrong end of office satire and hierarchical bosses-get-doors structure is antithetical to workers’ expectations for corporate transparency. It’s the best of bad options. But it can be better, a lot better.

Counterintuitively, the antidote to the open office ills isn’t more walls. It’s creating an environment that supports the varied types of work that take place in that in that particular setting. The industry term for workplaces that equip employees with the freedom to choose the right space and resources for their given project is activity-based working; however, publisher Arianna Huffington put it more simply when she predicted “agile, resilient companies (will) thrive in the future.” 

Whether you call it activity-based or agile, creating a workplace that adapts to the changing needs of the employee is easier said than done. You can’t buy a comfy sofa and call it a brainstorm area any more than you can install an antiseptic bay of putty colored desks and expect people to collaborate. The workplace needs to be designed around the way your team actually works — not the way you’d like them to work.

If your company employs, say, a large team of field sales professionals who are in the office infrequently, perhaps supplying each with a dedicated desk consumes floorspace that could be better used to support another activity, like installing “phone booths” to enable employees to hold private conversations or make personal calls. Desk scheduling software, which would allow people to reserve a desk only on days when they’ll be in the office, may be your answer. 

As much as 20 percent of the population has a language-based learning disability such as dyslexia. Consider how stressful it is for them to read or write in a loud, frenetic open office. Create a “quiet car” in office and allow them to reserve a desk there whenever they need to focus. In doing so, you will have instantly improved wellness — not to mention productivity — for a sizable swath of your team.

These are just a couple of ideas. The key, of course, is to consider the range of activities that takes place in your office every day, tailor space to support each type of project, make it easy for workers to find and schedule the resources they need at any given time, and then collect usage data so you can continuously adapt the environment to their needs. Then watch as the sick days dissipate, high performers thrive, and your best workers show up every day feeling invigorated and appreciated.

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