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How can we give employees CHOICE in the open office environment?

A call for devoted working pods in the open office -- to offset the noise and restore autonomy. “Autonomy leads to empowerment. We work hard to maintain a balance between collaboration and cooperation and independence.”-Bobby Kotick, businessman

The need for autonomy — or control over how we work and live — is a basic human one. Without it, we feel stressed out and unhappy.

This is especially true at work.  And especially understood in the totally open office floor plan.

The open office and autonomy (or the lack thereof)

The open office deprives the worker of autonomy at multiple levels.

With all sound-absorbing walls, partitions, and dividers eliminated, office noise is an antagonizing force that prevents employees from relaxing into strong focus. And though noise is the open office’s characteristic externality, other environmental conditions such as ventilation, music, and lighting should not be overlooked. Because they all affect state of well-being. And, incidentally, they are all outside the control of each employee in a purely open office.

Without these sound-absorbing, privacy dividers, employees consistently report feeling like they are being monitored constantly or micromanaged (even if they are not). This collective experience shouts ‘lack of autonomy over space.’ because autonomy is the opposite of micromanagement. Employees need private spaces to do work. They also need to feel trusted; a feeling that accompanies this affordance of private space. They need autonomy.

The unevolved open office has no private work spaces. Without a variety of work settings to pick from (such as work pods) employees are confined to one desk all day, every day. Here, the psychological issues of having no choice in where to work are compounded by an office ergonomics cardinal sin: being withheld the freedom to move.

The theme here? Without control over the conditions around us at work, we feel oppressed.

The statistics: autonomy allows us to do better work

“The most satisfied workers enjoy a high degree of choice and control in their workplace and are able to work effectively both alone and in groups.”-Steelcase’s Engagement and the Global Workplace report

Employees that are given control over their work– in multiple capacities — are empowered to find their personal flow within their tasks and the office space. This to, ultimately, do their best work with the happiest approach.

So the open office crushed the employee’s sense of autonomy… what do we do now?

According to Gensler’s 2019 Workplace Survey, offices that are mostly open but have ample private spaces enjoy the most productive employees. Additionally, these employees report that they enjoy their experience within their office due to its diverse range of private spaces (acoustic pods, collaboration areas, work cafes…).

The insight is incredibly encouraging for those of us who’ve invested in ‘open’ and have been disappointed by the return. Because it suggests the premise of the open office isn’t entirely flawed; the concept of ‘open’ just needs to be balanced with the necessity for ‘closed.’

Giving employees CHOICE in how they work

“Today’s workplace is an ecosystem, and the best workplace experiences are built on variety, choice, and autonomy. Providing a great workplace experience also yields direct business performance benefits. Great workplaces create more engaged employees; and more engaged employees are the key to business productivity and profit.” -Gensler’s 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey

And just how valuable is choice, to be sure? According to Gensler’s research, 79% of employees that have access to a variety of work settings to choose from report that their experience at work is great. Variety… choice… autonomy… the sure direction for office design is clear.

The missing piece? Work pods that provide dedicated working spaces and give employees total control over the conditions of their work environment.

Work pods give employees choice in how they work at two distinct levels

“Workplace choice is just one part of a broader culture of autonomy. With the support of organizational policy, and the right alignment of tools and technology to optimize productivity, it allows workers to optimize their own job performance, leaving them more satisfied, motivated, and creative…”-Diane Hoskins, Co-CEO, Gensler

Gensler’s data shows that employees do benefit from the feeling of cohesion and transparency that the open floor plan enables. But, practically speaking, people also need control over how they work to do their best work — both collaboratively and individually.

This is where choice comes into play. And choice is what versatile work pods deliver.

The beauty of a “work-pod-based-approach” to building CHOICE into the open office is that it gives employees control over their work environment at two distinct and equally important levels.

  • What kind of pod do I want to work in? Large or small? Open or partially-closed? Sitting or standing?
  • What conditions do I want to set in my pod? Bright or dim lighting? Binaural beats music or ambient silence? Medium or high ventilation?

Envision: a bright, open office outfitted with a variety of work pod types placed strategically throughout the office. Solo pods line the walls. Each pod sound-insulates your top sales reps’ video conferences completely, allowing them to bring their most self-assured presence to each important client connect. Meeting pods of various sizes and designs are also set up beside solo pods. These meeting pods embrace the free flow of real collaboration by design — important, because group autonomy matters, too. A handful of semi-open pods complete pod the array. They offer a beautiful hybrid of ‘separation from’ and ‘connection to’ the larger environment, allowing the flow of energy from the office space to permeate and invigorate impromptu, electric meetings within the pod. Excellent for those who need a little bit of chaos to brainstorm.

In this perfect scenario, each employee is empowered by choice. Beautiful, necessary choice. They can choose what kind of pod they want to work in, picking the size and atmosphere that will best support their unique task at hand.

hushMeet.open – a partially open pod. Available in a range of sizes to accommodate 4 people