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Open Offices: The Trends, Benefits and Challenges Faced in Creating Flexible Work Spaces

Posted by Kevin Gulley

Feb 24, 2016

As what is likely a normal evolution of technology in the workplace, many companies are experimenting with smaller and more open office spaces for their workforce. The trend toward creating these activity-based and collaborative work environments has been building momentum in recent years, as more employees take advantage of flexible work schedules and remote working arrangements. However, many organizations are discovering that there are challenges as well as benefits to this shift in office configurations.crowded_office.jpg

To take a closer look at some of the advantages and potential hurdles to the open-office trend, I recently did a podcast with Mitch Friend, North American President of Plenom Office Intelligence. Plenom is the maker of the Jabra Busylight and other devices designed to help businesses work more efficiently and productively within the context of their unified communications infrastructure. Mitch had some insights to share with me, as well as some thoughts on what the future of shared and open office spaces may look like in the future.

Business Drivers of the Shift toward Open Office

According to Mitch, the real driving force behind this move to a smaller and more open floorplan is due to two basic factors. The first is probably an obvious one – the cost savings associated with a smaller real estate footprint, and the utility cost savings that goes along with that. This is an immediate benefit to an organization, and flows directly to the bottom line. The second driver may also be somewhat apparent to many of us. It’s the collaboration that can take place organically when employees aren’t ensconced in an office or in high-walled cubicles, but are out in the open where team members can see and interact with them.

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Companies also gain an advantage by shifting resources and creating dynamic teams as business needs dictate. Some of those needs may be project-based, they may depend on meeting certain business cycle demands, or they may be based on dynamics specific to a certain business function. An open-plan office allows for the creation of impromptu meetings to quickly resolve certain issues, and it can lead to more knowledge-sharing and a better trained workforce.

The Challenges of an Open Plan Office

Of course, Mitch also reminded me that the shift to an open office and to dynamic collaboration brings additional challenges. The conditions that make an open office space such a creative and idea-sharing environment can also make it potentially chaotic and disruptive. Imagine an employee with a deadline and who is settling into a productive flow, when a sudden “impromptu meeting” presents itself. Flow is disrupted, and individual creative process comes to an abrupt halt. This is one of the downside risks to the open plan office setting, and it presents both design and technical challenges to overcome.

Business Considerations when Creating an Open Office Environment

Part of what makes an open office environment work well is the planning that goes into creating the space itself. Special consideration needs to be paid to designing what are called concentration zones, along with huddle rooms and enclosed meeting spaces. These breakout spaces offer a buffer zone, and allow for meetings and collaboration to take place with less disruption to the entire office.

“Providing a combination of busy areas for collaboration and more quiet areas for concentration and individual creativity is a part of the flexibility that makes open office settings work,” says Mitch.

Technologies that are Helping Open Offices Succeed

Along with the design considerations are the technology tools that assist workers in making the most of an open setting. The Kuando Busylight product made by Mitch’s company Plenom, helps to resolve some of the challenges of open offices by providing real-time status of an employee’s availability for anyone to see.

“With the increased use of headsets, especially with unified communications where the computer has become your phone, we’re facing an interruption explosion,” said Mitch.

In conjunction with a unified communications platform, Busylight let’s workers maintain their personal space and avoid unwanted interruptions. A combination of both hardware and software, Busylight brings presence management and presence status to the real world for managing the personal productivity process and workflow.

The Future of Open Office Spaces

Finally, I asked Mitch to speculate on the future of open office plans, and whether he thinks the trend toward smaller and more flexible work spaces will continue.

“I think the cost savings alone of these smaller and more flexible spaces means that they will continue to thrive. Not only that, but the way today’s millennial workforce prefers to work is in this type of a setting – it’s how they are most comfortable.”

Mitch went on to say, “As today’s workforce transitions into management roles, the work environment will likely continue to trend that way.”

Topics: collaboration, Business Case, Employees, Huddle Rooms, Meeting Rooms, Use Case

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