Open workspaces can test workers in new ways

As a longtime newsroom creature, I’ve been exposed to my share of open workspaces. It’s a fairly common trait in the industry.

But today, it’s not just journalists working at these largely privacy-free desks as more industries jump into the open office fray.

As they convert, employers are learning there are plenty of issues to navigate, from the good to the bad to the ugly.

“Think of the workspace as a tool. And any tool — whether a computer or a wrench — will require training,” said Jed Link, spokesman for the Houston-based International Facility Management Association. So “if you approach an open office the same way you approach a closed office, it’s not going to work.”

The association, which has been tracking the migration from private offices to workstations with low — or even no— partitions, found nearly 70 percent of U.S. offices had open worksites as of 2010. That’s up from 64 percent more than a decade earlier.

Austin advertising firm LatinWorks, which recently moved into a larger space off Bee Cave Road, has added more open workspaces. The move has fueled new levels of conversation and creativity, says CEO Manny Flores.

“Open areas foster more team spirit, they generate more ideas and new employees get to know each other faster and better,” Flores said. “Open areas provide for better team spirit, better collaboration and better ideas.”

At the same time, LatinWorks also offers areas for private conversations when workers need it, he said.

Duff Stewart, CEO of ad agency GSD&M, which like LatinWorks is affiliated with ad giant Omnicom, says his firm is adding open workspaces as its West Sixth Street offices undergo their first major makeover since moving there in 1996.

“What we are trying to look at is the way we work today versus how we worked when we moved in… a time when there was a lot of people with individual offices,” Stewart said. Now, “the whole idea is to get an environment that creates a lot of energy and lets people flow and move.”

The agency put an open workspace model in its lobby to get feedback from workers. The verdict: Workers weren’t fond of a lower, 10-inch partition on desks and instead voted for higher, 19-inch partitions.

“That provides a little bit more privacy,” Stewart said.

The open-office trend has become popular in Silicon Valley, as tech giants Google and Facebook looked to boost efficiencies.

But not everyone is a fan, as some reports indicate workers struggling with noise, distractions and even passing on illnesses faster in open layouts.

“There is a great deal of research, as well as anecdotal evidence, that shows that open work spaces lower workers’ levels of concentration and inhibit productivity and creativity,” said Maura Thomas, an Austin-based speaker and founder of “These types of work spaces can also cause higher levels of stress and provide less satisfaction for workers.”

One way employers can alleviate those concerns is by also making some private spaces available, she says. Also, workers can use headphones as a “Do Not Disturb” sign for others.

Link, the spokesman for International Facility Management Association, says a white noise desk machine can also help.

“It’s all a perception thing,” he said. “If there is a background noise that your brain cancels and ignores, it makes the conversation around you a smaller step above ambient.”

The key, Link said, is remembering that “there are certain courtesies in an open space that you wouldn’t take in a closed space.”

For example, for a telephone conversation at an open desk, “maybe you speak quietly. Some conversations, maybe you have in quiet rooms.”

But what about deskmates with an “anything goes” attitude?

Thomas suggests workers can discuss the problem with their manager or address it directly. For example, she suggests telling that co-worker with a smelly lunch, “Your lunch smells delicious but I really need to focus — would you mind eating in the kitchen?”

Thomas says other annoyances can also be addressed and can even be viewed as leadership opportunities, from whether pets or e-cigarettes are acceptable to loud conversations or arguments.

She suggests using these approaches for those difficult moments:

  • “Perhaps you could take those calls outside? The rest of us are trying to concentrate.”
  • “I love animals, but do you think we could cooperate on the spot where your dog sleeps?”
  • “Wow, I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. Would you like to step outside and talk?”
  • “E-cigarette — cool! Are you using those to quit tobacco? I don’t blame you, (but) any kind of smoke or vapor really bothers my allergies.”

The key is to be assertive or walk away if necessary, Thomas said.

“The best thing an employee can do… is to get up and go work somewhere else, such as a coffee shop,” Thomas said. Alternately, “if there were ever a time to speak up and have a polite, but firm, conversation with a co-worker, those are it.”

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