While cubicles were once all the rage, a lot of companies have made the switch to an open office plan in recent years. These layouts can often accommodate more employees per square foot, making offices less expensive than before. And, on the surface, the savings of an open office plan make a lot of financial sense. But, when you dive in a little deeper, open office plans may have a hidden cost, especially when it comes to retaining technical employees.
A recent survey conducted by Bospar and Propeller Insights found that 76% of working adults in the United States (who were polled as a representative of the country’s population) disliked open offices. And, while many employees can overlook their gripes about open office spaces for the right job, it’s important to note that there’s a widespread negative association with open offices that could turn off potential new hires or send your current employees packing if they find an opportunity in an office they prefer working in every day.
So, what is it about open offices that make 76% of working adults in the United States so unhappy? The same Bospar and Propeller Institute survey found the following reasons were the main gripes.
1. Lack of Privacy: Almost half—43% to be exact—cited their hatred for the lack of privacy in an open office setting as their main point of contention. People are social creatures but, in general, they prefer to work in privacy where they feel free to be creative and think critically. And, what’s worse, to make up for the lack of privacy they feel in these workplaces, a study published by The Royal Society found that face-to-face interactions dipped 70% in open offices while email use increased 56%, so open office environments don’t even benefit in person collaboration in the way they’re supposed to.
2. Overhearing Personal Conversations: Being distracted by a conversation about the project you’re working on is one thing but being distracted by too many personal conversations is another. 34% of respondents said their main complaint with open offices is that they overhear too many personal conversations. This links back to the lack of privacy listed earlier, but is a more specific complaint that is worth noting.
3. Can’t Concentrate: If you can’t concentrate, you can’t be productive. If you can’t be productive, you can’t produce top-tier results in a timely fashion. That’s why it should be a concern that almost one-third—29% precisely—said they simply can’t concentrate in open office environments.
4. Fear of Sensitive Information Leaking: While your organization may be as open as can be, there could still be some sensitive information you don’t want spread around the office like wildfire. According to 21% of respondents, that’s exactly what happens in these open office settings. They worry that sensitive information can leak more easily when working in an open office due to a lack of privacy.
5. Just Can’t Think: Finally, 21% of respondents felt that they simply can’t think when they’re working in an open office. This could be due to the myriad of distractions listed above or other noise that often carries through large, open spaces filled with people.
So what can you do to make sure your technical retention rate isn’t damaged by your open office plan? Ideally, you’d hire the 24% of Americans who don’t mind working in an open office space but, in case some of the talent you need lies within the 76% who detest working in open offices, consider one or more of the following solutions.
1. Allow Telecommuting: In the same Bospar and Propeller Insights survey, 84% of respondents said they’d like to work from home. That’s right, the hatred of open offices isn’t as widespread as the desire to work from home. Why is telecommuting so appealing, especially to technical professionals? Their main reasons were avoiding commuting, being more productive, being more thoughtful in their work, and being able to take on more responsibilities. And, while there are certainly challenges associated with managing a team that works from home, there are also benefits that could come in handy when trying to hire technical professionals in a shrinking pool of available talent: 19% said they’d be willing to relocate specifically for the option to telecommute while 5% said they would take a pay cut just to be able to telecommute. Additionally, a recent Dice Survey found that 28% of technical professionals consider telecommuting the most critical benefit an employer could offer. This sought-after perk isn’t just a way of avoiding open offices, but certainly helps in that regard.
2. Allow Use of Noise Cancelling Headphones: While open office plans may be ideal for collaboration, not every moment of every day is spent collaborating (at least not for most technical professionals). Allowing your employees to wear noise cancelling headphones (or regular headphones) when they’re in the productivity zone can cut down on some of the auditory distractions that are often found in open offices. And, while they won’t help your employees avoid visual distractions, they can address a lot of the aforementioned concerns about not being able to concentrate or overhearing too many private conversations.
3. Allow Flextime: When everyone arrives in the office at the same time and leaves at the same time, your open office is suddenly flooded with noise, people, and distractions during the duration of everyone’s workday. Flextime not only helps alleviate some of that noise and distraction in the early morning and late afternoon, it also allows your employees to have some flexibility and autonomy in their schedules and avoid the congestion of rush hour.
4. Provide Private Work Spaces: Whether it’s a series of small conference rooms that employees can retreat to when they need to focus on a task at hand, a designated quiet lounge room with couches and minimal distractions, a few offices with doors that actually close, or a segment of the office that still has cubicles, there are a lot of ways that you can provide private work spaces within an open office. These spaces provide some privacy for sensitive conversations or work that requires intense concentration. Designate these small areas for employees who feel they can’t concentrate in an open office or for specific projects that require close concentration and attention to detail. These pockets of privacy will allow your employees to find the right workspace for their current task and be more productive throughout the day.
Alleviating some of the concerns about open offices may help you retain your technical employees, but don’t underestimate how deeply the hatred for open offices runs. If you really want to improve or maintain your current technical talent retention rate (to avoid lengthy, costly, frequent hiring processes in the future), consider asking your employees for suggestions on how the office’s layout could be improved and implement some of the changes listed above.