How you can remove open office pressure to keep employees happier, longer

Tips

How to Remove Open Office Pressure Points: A Webinar Hosted with Lola Travel

TL:DR? Watch the whole webinar right here

At Robin, we’re all about creating productive work environments. So, when Lola invited us to participate in their webinar series focused on the ways operations pros can improve employee experience, we were stoked.

We sent Brendan O’Neil, our Sales and Enablement Lead, to join Liz Mongrello, Lola’s Office Manager, to offer advice on how best to remove open office pressure points to keep employees happier, longer.

But first, a quick caveat. I’m new here 👋 But more importantly, I’m new to the workforce. Having graduated from college less than a year ago, I’m still settling into the workplace universe. For a while, I assumed I would either be herded into a cubicle farm or I’d have to hoverboard to levitating huddle spaces.

While neither is true for my experience, it was incredibly helpful to hear firsthand from Brendan, a member of the original Robin crew and someone who, as self-professed, “could talk about the office spaces for days” speak about the state of the modern office. Brendan explained the spectrum of office layouts, the most common challenges that exist in them and how to best combat them in the modern age. Here are the key nuggets of insight I gleaned from the webinar:

Understanding the evolution of the modern workplace

Brendan started by clearly differentiating between common expectations compared to the reality of the open office environment. The open office layout is expected to have easy-to-navigate spaces, various types of functional workspaces, plenty of space for all employees and the necessary technology to be productive, right? Insert eye rolls here. While those expectations still exist, the reality of transitioning to the open office creates a whole set of challenges.

Gusto's SF offices epitomize the functional open office layout

All open offices are this beautiful and functional, right?
More of Gusto’s San Francisco office here

If there are so many complaints about the open office, why does it even exist? As Brendan explained it, you have to think about the way people work has changed in the last twenty or thirty years. Instead of a full desk with a desktop computer, fax machine, phone, etc now all the typical employee needs to work is compressed into two rectangles: a laptop and a cell phone. Since employees are no longer tied down to their desks by technology, this newfound flexibility requires a different, more mobile-friendly workplace: the open office.

Work spaces have changed as technology has gotten more portable

Of course, not every office has an open office floor plan. There’s an entire spectrum of different office types from those with only cubicles and large private offices to very flexible offices with hot desking capabilities and flex work areas. One consistency between the office types is that they are designed in reaction to whatever came before it. The cubicle was born in response to the “action office”, an open office design before it’s time, created by Robert Propst and Herman Miller.

Sick of the rigidity of cubicle walls and a need to expand, companies then turned to the open office. Finally, with all the ails the open office created, the flexible office — with both open space and designated flexible work areas — emerged. This organization introduced a new level of intentionality to help facilitate productivity through activity-based working.

Workplace organization has changed from closed to open and more flexible designs

Since mobility and open office layouts aren’t going anywhere, organizations are under pressure to create an environment their employees love. Activity-based working allows people to take advantage of their workplace by doing specific activities in specific areas of the office. Employees may need time to focus on individual work, meet one-on-one with a manager or brainstorm with their team. The flexible office aims to move away from “isolated work in a one size fits all environment to increase collaboration and enable people to use their workplace better”. Well said, Brendan.

Okay, but the open office still sucks…

Ideally, all work environments would be optimized for employee happiness and productivity. However, as Brendan mentioned early on, the expectations of the open office layout don’t always align with reality.  “Even though every office is a beautiful and unique snowflake, they all somehow deal with the same pressure points”. No matter your office type, Brendan had some great tips – backed by Liz’s insight – on how to relieve the most common open office challenges.

“It’s too loud”

Probably the most pervasive complaint in the open office: too much noise. When an office is too loud, employees get distracted, irritated and ultimately much less productive. Brendan suggests:

Framery phonebooths can help decrease office noise
Brendan geeked over these Framery phone booths

Phone booths: If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, phone booths are your solution since they’re much less expensive to order than knocking down drywall to build phone conference rooms. Phone booths are especially great for customer success or salespeople who need to 1) be on the phone frequently and 2) not distract other people who don’t want to listen to them objection handle why now really is the right time.

Sound barriers can dampen noise and add intention back to workplace design

Sounds barriers: Sounds barriers are great for a few reasons. First, the material helps to dampen sound from traveling around the office. But more importantly, sound barrier dividers can act as contextual cues to suggest certain kinds of behaviors. For example, on one side of a barrier, there are desks available for heads down, quiet work and on the other side a huddle space available for collaborative work. Sound barriers are a great way to bring intentionality back into office organization.

Sonos speakers can be used for white, pink and brown noise

Ambient noise: This is a fan favorite in the Robin office. In different areas of the office, we play white, pink or brown noise which helps buffet sounds to make for a more balanced and pleasant work environment.

Liz Mongrello chimed in to say that as the Lola office has grown from around 40 employees up to 70 in the last two years, noise levels grew. She’s been actively looking into ways to buffer sound – including a device that can be put into individual desks to dampen sound – to make their growing office more workable.

“There’s no place to meet”

Ever seen a one-on-one happening in a ten-person conference room? Ever found yourself wiggling through the middle of an impromptu team meeting blocking an entire hallway? Having the right spaces available for different types of meetings is essential for productivity and yet, in a disorganized office, can be so elusive. Thankfully, Brendan had a few easy fixes for any office:

TV carts enable teams to meet in open areas

TV carts: We used a TV cart on my first day at Robin, well actually in my first fifteen minutes. One of our two TV carts, named Bert and Ernie, was used for the Monday morning Go-to-Market huddle. This was perfect since we met in a large open area to fit both the sales and marketing teams while also video conferencing in remote employees to listen and participate. It was as easy as rolling Bert into the kitchen/lounge area and throwing Google Meet on the screen.

Room displays can increase visibility in the conference room scheduling process

Scheduling software: This is where Robin comes in. Scheduling software helps increase visibility in the conference room scheduling process. This helps decrease the usual pain points around conference rooms usage like no-show meetings, stolen conference rooms and outdated calendars.

As Lola reaches its capacity boiling point, conference room availability is a constant struggle. Before Robin, Liz said she was roped into helping figure out a conference room snafu what seemed like at least once an hour. Liz mentioned that usage analysis helps her understand how to make the most of the space they have and eventually, once they completely boil over, plan for their next office space.

“There’s no privacy”

Privacy can mean a few things in the office space. Whether it’s a neighbor’s wandering eyes somehow landing on your computer screen or having the necessary space for private conversations, a sense of privacy is key for workplace comfort and productivity.

Add on huddle spaces are an easy way to facilitate private conversations

Add on huddle spaces: An easy way to facilitate private meetings is with add-on huddle spaces. We use huddle space furniture designed by Herman Miller when we need to grab a teammate and discuss an idea without having to hover around other coworkers’ desks and “accidentally” notice they’re scrolling through Amazon.

Desk dividers add a sense of ownership to a shared workplace

Desk dividers: These work by adding a sense of ownership to a desk even in a workplace with shared desking. Desk dividers help dampen sound as well as decrease visual distractions.

The modern office is changing drastically every day and with each iteration comes a new set of challenges. As a newbie to the workforce in general, this webinar helped me learn there’s way more to office productivity than a pair of noise-canceling headphones and a triple venti soy latte with two extra shots of espresso.

Want to learn more about how to get the most out of your office space to keep your employees happier for longer? Get a demo here.

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Bonus! Brendan dubbed himself the Robin office Oprah and made a list of a few of his favorites.

Oprah

Check them out here:
1. Beautiful offices: OfficeLovin’, OfficeSnapshots, Gustos’ office
2. Interesting reads: Action Office, Ambience in the Office
3. Brendan’s email: brendan@robinpowered.com He’ll answer. Apparently, he talks office design in his sleep. You can also listen to his advice straight from the horse’s mouth, check out the webinar recording here.

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Sources: OfficeLovin’, OfficeSnapshots, BuzziDesk, Framery, Evolution of the Desk, Sonos, Heckler Design, Herman Miller