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How to design an office that accommodates everyone

June 14, 2019
6 minute read
Last updated June 20, 2019

I was hired into The Predictive Index® (PI) back in June 2016, sight unseen. I had no idea what to expect on my first day. When I walked into the office for the first time, my stomach sank. Everything was out in the open. There were desks in the middle of the room, floor-to-ceiling glass-enclosed conference rooms and executive offices, and my new coworkers flying by on scooters.

The office was modern and elegant—it was also my worst nightmare. Coming out of the Big 4, where I split my time between the privacy of my large-enough cubicle and the comfort of my home office, I had no idea how to navigate this new open concept. And as someone with low extraversion, I felt like I would implode.

Beautiful as the office was, I couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t built for me. As I settled into my new desk and stared out at the open bullpen in front of me, I only thought one thing:

What have I done?

office entrance

Time to retire open floor plan offices.

There’s plenty of data pointing to reasons why open floor plans in professional settings are problematic. From a higher likelihood of spreading illness to decreased productivity to potentially creating an uncomfortable Orwellian environment, it’s easy to see how the open office concept has earned its criticism.

Susan Cain, expert on the world of introverts, emphasizes the negative impact open offices, saying, “Open floor plans can be disruptive, which reduces productivity [by] half.”

That’s right: by half. That’s a tough blow for a fad that was founded under the guise of increasing collaboration and the hope that with more team collaboration would come more business results. Introverts can’t find the safe, quiet space they need to do their best work, and extraverts can become too easily distracted.

In my first several months at PI, I wanted to do good work and fit in. The company was—and still is—brimming with high performers who are vibrant and friendly. I can be reserved and hard to read, and I didn’t want that reputation. So I embraced the open office and did my best to socialize and be a part of the culture I so valued.

But what ended up happening was ill-managed time and late nights at the office to make up for the time spent having a quick conversation with anyone who walked by. I couldn’t keep up with the demands of the open concept office, and I was starting to feel the negative effects of it.

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Don’t worry—we don’t need to bring back cubicles.

Real estate is expensive, so providing every employee with their own individual private space is neither cost-effective nor practical. And with the rise of remote work, the odds of having every employee in the office at any given time are low.

Cain emphasizes the importance of giving employees the option to move freely between an open space and a more secluded one. She says, “Make sure you have enough private spaces that they’re freely available to everyone. [They] need to be organically integrated, socially acceptable to use, and easy to access.”

As PI grew from a small office of roughly 35 employees in 2016 into the 150-plus headcount it is today in 2019, the need for more private spaces emerged. One of the creative ways PI found it could solve its heavily open concept problem was to install phone booths around the office. These easily-buildable, free-standing private rooms are not only very nearly soundproof, but thankfully also well-ventilated (for those of us with a healthy dose of claustrophobia).

Here’s how to design a space for all:

When you’re designing your office space, there are a number of things to consider.

1. Think about your cultural values.

Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all culture, there’s no one-size-fits-all office. If you work in a heavily regulated industry and client confidentiality is paramount, design a space that will allow your employees to do the best work with the most discretion. Closed doors or private cubicles may be the answer. Alternatively, if your culture demands transparency and collaboration, a more open space may be right for you. At PI, teamwork and transparency are core to our culture, and so we reflect that in our space.

2. Think about team dynamics.

How teams need to work together is important when designing spaces. At PI, our team dynamics vary wildly based on function. Our engineering and product teams work together seamlessly, and so they work in their own large shared office space based on product offering. Our science team needs the ability to do heads-down work, while also discuss confidential data from time to time. For this reason, they have their own office where they can open and close the door as needed. And for our sales team, an open space where they can listen to and learn from each other on sales calls creates the best environment for them.

3. Always remember the individual.

As important as it is to consider the team, remember a team is made up of individuals. While the overall team dynamic may signal one thing, each employee has their own individual needs. Even though our sales team thrives in an open environment, sometimes it’s essential they take a step back and work in a private office to prep for a call. And for introverts who like time to work alone? Giving them the option to work in an open space to collaborate is just as important, too.

Employee experience is the priority.

When it comes to creating an inclusive environment, a physical work space that accommodates all employees’ needs cannot be undervalued.

During the interview process at PI, it’s standard procedure to ask candidates to describe their ideal work environments. For some, open collaborative space is a must. For others, all they want is time to sit alone and do heads-down work. As one of our cultural values interviewers, I speak in depth with candidates about the work environments that best motivate them and how they can find what they need at PI.

I speak from experience. That new employee who walked into an open concept office and felt out of place quickly found that wasn’t true. In fact, it wasn’t long before I found the introvert-friendly spots where I could do my best work. Sometimes, it’s in a tiny pod in the back of the office. Other times, it’s in a quiet lounge chair in a secluded corner.

But there will always be times when I can sit at my desk, quietly bopping along to whatever music station the sales team has settled on for the day, passing around snacks with the team, and just enjoying having others around.

I still don’t love purely open concept offices, and because I’m naturally wired to be more introverted, I likely never will.

But I do love the PI office. And I have to believe after three years, in spite of my first impression, this office really was built for me. It was built for my colleagues, too.

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