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Early in my freelance career I was working on a way to visualize and describe the Medicare doughnut hole in a “new and exciting way.”  In a large group area next to me some junior creatives were discussing the latest episode of Lost. On my second day, I asked them if they could chat in the break room. I was ignored. On the third day I explained to their boss that I couldn’t concentrate. They said, “We can’t do that. That’s our company culture.”  On the 7th day, I presented the hole concepts to the agency team and Managing Director, who didn’t dig it. This costly ‘mistake’ taught me to bring earbuds and learn to not listen to the music when I was working onsite.

Open office spaces are a dumb move for ad agencies…or any company where people have to concentrate, innovate, produce or even collaborate. And sitting elbow to elbow in a row may be great for socializing at a lunch counter or bar, but not in a working environment. The idea that open spaces would democratize company culture and encourage creativity and collaboration arose in the mid 90’s. but in the last few years this myth of the open office has been debunked in stories by Forbes, Fortune, The New Yorker, and a 2018 study by The Harvard Business School, as reported by Fast Company, in January 2019.

“Employees hate open offices. They’re distracting. They’re loud. There’s often little privacy. ‘The sensory overload that comes with open-office plans gets to a point where I can barely function,’ says one 47-year-old graphic designer who has spent more than two decades working in open environments. ‘I even had to quit a job once because of it.’ ” 

Even great ad agencies can start terrible trends. Chiat Day (creators of the legendary Apple campaign and now the 15th largest ad agency), instituted the “Virtual Office” in 1994, where employees signed their laptops in and out and then grabbed whatever desk was open. It resulted in people just not showing up, according to the Fast Company story.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed quite a change in the open areas of most of the companies I visit. The place is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. People don’t talk to one another, I surmise, so as not to disturb their neighbors and vice-versa. People don’t communicate in these spaces. According to the Harvard study: Open offices reduce face-to-face interaction by about 70% and increase email and messaging by roughly 50%.

When employees are your greatest asset (and one of your biggest expenses), why do companies persist in the open office trend?  The Fast Company story goes on to say, “According to commercial real estate association CoreNet Global, the average space allotted to individual employees globally fell from 225 square feet in 2010 to 176 square feet in 2013, and is projected to keep decreasing. This adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars–or more–in savings per year at the country’s largest companies, according to calculations from Erik Rood, an analyst in Google’s human resources department who examines corporate financials on his personal blog, Data Interview Qs.” Fast Company explains.

Working Virtually or Virtually Working?

However, with the new millennium has brought about an even better way to say on office space: remote working. Led by globalization and the tech economy, the movement of employees working away from the office has gained momentum.  Globally, 70 percent of professionals work remotely, aka telecommute, at least one day a week; 53 percent work remotely for at least half of the week. Some major corporations that have tried it,  didn’t like it. However, employees value it, especially millennial staff, who are the biggest percent of the workforce.  Working remotely has its pluses and minuses, both for companies and their workers. Once a company offers it, is it a wise move to away the remote working option? Learn more in next week’s post.


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