IT moves to open workspaces, but not everyone is happy

In an effort to boost collaboration and attract millennials, even old-school organizations are tearing down their cubicle walls. But is shared space the best environment for serious IT work?

Citrix Systems
Credit: Citrix Systems

Five minutes. That's all it took for Christian Lang to uproot from the workspace he'd occupied for the past 18 months and move to a new spot.

No heavy lifting, no furniture to move, no desk to pack up.

"The openness we have allows us to fluidly move between spots without causing much friction," says Lang, a software engineer at Dallas-based home health software developer Axxess. Lang made the move last summer so he could sit alongside the firm's mobile team, after realizing a few weeks into a new initiative that he'd be more efficient and productive if they were all together.

By moving, he eliminated any lag in getting answers, as sometimes happens even when messaging over the in-house chat function. When the project's over, Lang says, he'll simply move again.

Like a growing cadre of companies of all sizes and specialties, Axxess has fully embraced the open office concept, adopting a physical environment with few closed-off spaces or walls between its employees, who number about 250.

"We want a free flow of information," says Andrew Olowu, CTO at Axxess, which was ranked the No. 1 small organization on Computerworld's 100 Best Places to Work in IT list for 2016. "There's no natural transfer of knowledge from one group to another when they're in cubicles. In an open office, where stakeholders sit next to each other, you create a culture where creativity and serendipity happen."

Smart TVs and interactive whiteboard walls enhance team spaces at Axxess. Axxess

Smart TVs and interactive whiteboard walls enhance team spaces at Axxess. “You gain efficiency and productivity,” says CTO Andrew Olowu of the open office layout.

In the past decade, open workspaces have become inextricably associated with Silicon Valley startups seeking office environments that matched their casual styles and appealed to millennial workers' ideals about non-hierarchical organizations. The concept since has spread to well-established corporations including AT&T, GE and KMPG, which have moved at least some parts of their organizations to open space.

Managers and team leaders believe an open environment fosters community and supports collaboration better than a traditional office-and-cubicle setup, but not all employees are onboard, particularly those who prefer a quieter, less visually stimulating environment in which to concentrate.

What's needed, both sides agree, is a range of workspace options that address organizational goals while still meeting employees' needs -- meaning physical space that allows for private meetings and quiet concentration in addition to community seating. Even more important: Corporate culture likewise has to value collaboration and innovation if IT organizations are to truly reap the benefits of open space.

Ready to start breaking down the cubicle walls? Read on for lessons learned from six companies that have moved their tech workforce out into the open.

Seeking instant interaction

Spontaneous collaboration is the biggest selling point of the open office, according to executives and employees like Lang. It's much easier to share ideas, join ongoing conversations and talk through problems on-the-fly when no one has to knock on an office door, peer over a cubicle wall or schedule a meeting.

"The goal wasn't to lower the walls so managers could look out and see if everyone is at their desks working. It was to produce a space that was more conducive to the collaboration required to get our work done," says Gregory R. Simpson, senior vice president and CTO of Synchrony Financial, a Stamford, Conn.-headquartered financial services firm.

Synchrony Financial Synchrony Financial

Synchrony Financial's Innovation Stations are custom-designed to promote cross-functional collaboration.

Synchrony started down the open-space path some four years ago by implementing Innovation Stations where cross-functional teams can work together. Innovation Stations feature couches and natural light from outside windows, and they tend to have either no walls or low partitions only. Simpson says the idea is to put workers who need to collaborate in an area that takes away some of the "friction" of interaction. "They see each other right across the desk. They can work together very quickly," he says.

Booz Allen Hamilton, which provides management and technology consulting services to the U.S. government, opened a 7,800-square-foot Innovation Center in Washington, D.C., in early 2016 to create a workplace that fosters more cross-functional engagement, says Sarah St. Clair, the firm's vice president of people services.

The open office -- which St. Clair characterizes as "relaxed, open and bright" -- both reflects and supports a 21st century way of working, she says. "It's all a part of trying to give people permission to brainstorm and think differently. And when you're in an environment that helps create that for you, you're more likely to do that," she says. "To be in a closed-door conference room for a meeting is fine. But you also need a place where you feel you can throw out ideas. It kind of frees your mind."

Booz Allen plans to open more such workspaces while also making small changes elsewhere -- such as reconfiguring offices to include lounges -- to reap some of the same benefits.

Booz Allen Hamilton Booz Allen Hamilton

Booz Allen Hamilton's Innovation Center is designed to give employees "permission to think differently," says VP of people services Sarah St. Clair.

To be sure, organizations embrace the open office concept in varying degrees. Some have taken baby steps: Maintaining closed-door offices, albeit fewer than in traditional environments, and swapping cubicle walls with glass to provide more transparency, literally and figuratively. Other firms have revamped certain sections of their buildings to be an open environment, used as needed by workers based on project requirements.

Some have open rooms with assigned seating, allowing workers to fill their space with personal items as they would have in a cube or office, while others are more free flowing, with workers changing seats daily or even more frequently. And some have no offices and no barriers whatsoever between workers, who sit in groups arranged not by department but by project or assignment.

That's the approach taken by OneLogin. The software vendor's San Francisco headquarters boasts exactly one office -- the CEO's. The rest of its 200 employees work in completely open, barrier-free space spread over two floors, filled with rows of desks custom-designed in a clean minimalist style and filing cabinets with padded tops for extra seating.

OneLogin

OneLogin's corporate headquarters in San Francisco houses just one office: that of the CEO. The rest of its space is wide open. 

"People talk all day, questions are shouted out. It creates a lot of camaraderie," says Mai Ton, vice president of HR. "That's how a lot of collaboration happens. Sometimes people need to talk out loud and get past email or even instant messaging, which doesn't always have context."

Noise up, privacy down?

While some employees are energized by the coffee-shop vibe of an open office, others aren't happy with the volume of noise and potential loss of privacy.

"Open spaces are good if you are all working on the same thing and need to collaborate," said one commenter who responded to a Computerworld Facebook query about open space. "Otherwise it's not productive. Cubicles are bad enough when you have loud people on the phone all the time."

Another agreed, "Openness when everyone is working on something different is very distracting and annoying," while a third said, "If you're doing work that requires being attentive to one's task, then an open office space would be counterproductive."

Some studies have found that open offices can cause conflict and create a high-pressure environment that leads to increased staff turnover and productivity dips. Others have found that workers prefer more privacy and find the noise and interruptions in such environments problematic.

Noise is a particular concern. One study, What Workers Want 2016 from the British Council for Offices found that only 45% of workers in open offices say that noise levels are acceptable -- that's significantly less than the 60% in traditional workspaces who find the office volume acceptable. That same study also found that 45% of workers said the open office design had no impact on productivity, with 25% saying it actually harms productivity.

An older study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2000, found that the noise from an open-office environment actually increases epinephrine, the "flight-or-fight" hormone also known as adrenaline.

Bringing employees around

Given all those concerns, managers say it's crucial to make sure employees have a place to go when they need quiet or privacy. Synchrony Financial's Simpson says the company offers different types of spaces to accommodate different work styles, and it has retained some traditional environments for some functions, such as HR, where privacy is frequently needed. It also uses glass walls to separate some groups to create the feeling of openness while still providing a noise barrier.

Beyond that, organizations should expect some pushback to a change in office design, and work to mitigate employee concerns, advises Paul Martine, CIO at Citrix Systems.

Citrix Systems Citrix Systems

Citrix Systems' "huddle spaces" for small-group collaboration are equipped with video capabilities that let workers easily include remote colleagues. 

The software company, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., started moving to an open-office designs with unassigned seating to accommodate rapid growth, a change that began in IT and moved into other functional areas and to multiple locations around the globe. So far employees in IT, supply chain and shared services work in such spaces.

"You're going to get resistance from some people," Martine warns. "The first time we discussed this idea, [workers] were nodding and smiling. At the second meeting, they were like 'You're doing this to us?' And by the third they were asking about exceptions," he relates. "That's why you need executive sponsorship and leadership from the managers and executives. And we let employees help pick the furniture," he adds.

Citrix invited employees and their families into the space as it was being constructed, allowing everyone to road-test the new accommodations -- collaboration areas that feature tables and walls with writeable surfaces; huddle spaces with video capabilities for small-group and remote collaboration; private rooms for phone calls and heads-down work; and lockers for storing personal items. Employees were encouraged to create digitized family photos to use as screensavers and let the kids try out the writeable surfaces.

Martine says workers who spend 30% or less of their time in their offices or cubicles are candidates for this new work environment, as they're already spending the majority of their time working collaboratively with others. So far, he says, the benefits have been tangible and immediate.

"[Previously] networking was on one side, and the telecomm team was somewhere else. Now it's easy to sit next to someone, and I've been told [managers] are more approachable. They say they always were, but workers might have been intimidated to knock on a door or interrupt them while they were in an office," he says.

Productivity is up too, Martine says. "I see more projects getting done on time, on budget without disruption since we've been in this environment. More systems and applications are staying up, and more team members are jumping in to help each other."

He notes, too, that as this design requires significantly less square footage, the company has been able to increase the density of employees by 50%, a substantial savings in real estate. "The long-term cost savings are off the chart," he says, while noting that such savings shouldn't be the main reason to go with such a design.

Corporate culture comes first

What should drive the decision to open up your IT office space? Physical design has to correspond with corporate culture, and vice versa, IT leaders say. In other words, you won't gain the benefits of an open office -- collaboration, camaraderie, community - unless those are your strategic priorities as well.

At Synchrony Financial, the office redesign was part and parcel of a shift in how software was developed. "The Innovation Space was really about collaboration and changing the way we developed software, going from waterfall to agile," says Simpson. "We want our products to get out as quickly as possible. And removing walls takes out the friction for the speed of work."

Lou Trebino, principal of Technology Enablement at audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG, agrees. "Unless you have the culture and the leadership and the goals behind it, it doesn't really matter what the space is," he says. "You won't achieve the results you want to achieve."

The firm has launched KPMG Ignition, an open cross-functional collaboration workspace, in Denver and Grand Rapids, Mich., and plans to open similar spaces in New York and Atlanta by the end of 2016. Trebino says KPMG has also been retrofitting other offices with lower cubicle walls, fewer offices and more glass.

KPMG KPMG

KPMG's open workspaces aim to "flatten out" organizational structures by providing a place for employees to come together naturally, says Lou Trebino, managing director of Technology Enablement.

The new Ignition offices (and to a lesser degree the retrofitted areas) "flatten out" the organization, allowing everyone from interns to senior advisors to interact in new ways.

"We knew we wanted to break down barriers. We wanted organizations to work together in ways they didn't before," Trebino says. "But with that you need to make sure they're empowered so they can go beyond the normal organizational structures, and you need to give them spaces where they naturally come together."

While senior IT executives acknowledge that not every employee will embrace the new openness, they're optimistic that they're on the right path for a majority of tech workers.

Simpson admits he lost one potential job candidate over workspace concerns -- a managerial candidate who balked at open seating, believing that the potential position was high enough up to warrant an office. But Simpson dismisses the experience, saying, "That's not the type of person we want. They cared more about their office than the job."

More often, he and others say, the open space actually helps in recruitment and retention.

Intelligent Product Solutions Intelligent Product Solutions

Like other companies that have adopted open offices, Intelligent Product Solutions finds its modern-looking space helps with recruitment and retention, especially of millennial workers.

"People like to be connected to other people," says June Severino Feldman, senior director of marketing and communications at Intelligent Product Solutions, a product design company, whose Hauppauge, N.Y. digs feature open space and whose Seattle-area office is moving in that direction.

She says the openness and light have helped attract workers, particularly younger ones, who grew up with and still seek that community feel. "The open office leaves the door open for spontaneity," Feldman says, "and that leads to new ideas and breakthrough moments."

Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
Shop Tech Products at Amazon