Cake in the Office: Finding Balance

The open office is getting a bad rap. Again.

New articles surfaced last week, pointing to 2018 research that open office environments have a negative impact on employee engagement and productivity. The study found that in open offices face-to-face communications decreased while email and instant messaging increased, tampering the picture of spontaneous creativity and collaborative energy associated with Google and Facebook.

What this particular study didn’t talk about was the type of office environment that does work. The kind of spaces that my Business Furniture and Choreo teams create day in and day out, by starting with “why.” By asking a lot of questions, and finding deep connection with organizations’ leadership, vision, strategy and goals.

Search for innovative office environments on Pinterest, and you’ll find yourself hypnotized by image after image of open-air, exposed-brick industrial spaces filled with really cool stuff. They look great, and don’t get me wrong—oftentimes we begin discovery meetings with potential new partners by passing around these types of images to find points of attraction. But the “what” is always followed by the “why.” Why does Ms. CEO like a certain image? How does she see this image fitting into her business environment? How would this change the way her people work?

Where there is an office environment that works, there is balance. The “open office” can break down cubicle and architectural walls yet still have modesty panels between workstations. On the contrary, you can keep your private office, but utilize architectural solutions like modular wall systems to maintain privacy yet provide transparency between leaders and teams.

Of course a purely open office would be considered a bust for most organizations. Gensler’s 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey of more than 6K full-time U.S. employees reports that a fraction of people prefer working in a purely open—and on the contrary, purely private—environment, and that more than two-thirds find spaces that fall between these two extremes as ideal. According to the survey, and I can attest to the validity, work environments that are mostly open but provide plenty of private space yield the highest scores in both employee effectiveness and experience, driven by choice, variety, and balance.

Every single day in the office, I am on multiple phone calls. And like the rest of our leadership team, I don’t have a private office. I’m also not the only one taking calls throughout the day. That’s why we incorporated a number of focus booths that provide privacy with transparency.

There are things you wish to share in the office. Celebrations. Birthdays. Cake. Not necessarily every phone conversation your team member has with his dog groomer.

One of the biggest problems with change to an open office environment is a lack of change management. Picture this: you arrive home to your living room completely rearranged—surprise!—with all new furniture, technology, and organizational systems. No one told you this was happening, and they certainly didn’t tell you why.

Choreo is a game-changer for organizations making such a switch. By developing communications plans for sharing the “why” broadly with teams to creating protocols for teams to implement in a new space, we support leadership teams through the entire process.

There is no magic formula or one-size-fits-all solution to space, but when it comes to achieving a Google-esque vibe, I believe you can have your cake and eat it, too.

So who’s ready for cake?

Mary Beth Oakes is the CEO of Business Furniture and Choreo, a Women Owned Business enterprise specializing in workplace research, strategy, and change management. With more than 25 years of experience in the commercial furniture industry, she is an expert in employee engagement and productivity, and is committed to helping clients across diverse organizationseducation, government, healthcare, and workplacein Indiana and Ohio succeed.