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A Silicon Valley Bank meeting area is designed to foster connections between teams. Photography: Lars Frazer

02 Oct

Privacy, Please, in Offices

The article details how “speech privacy” within an office environment is at the heart of overall productivity.

Noisy, open-floor plans have become a staple of office life. But after years of employee complaints, companies are trying to quiet the backlash.

Many studies show how open-plan office spaces can have negative effects on employees and productivity. As a result, companies are adding soundproof rooms, creating quiet zones and rearranging floor plans to appeal to employees eager to escape disruptions at their desk.

Companies are “not providing sufficient variety in spaces,” says David Lehrer, a researcher at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Lehrer studies the impact of office designs on employees, and lack of “speech privacy” is currently a significant problem, he says. Employees in open-plan offices are less likely to be satisfied with their offices than employees in a traditional office layout, Mr. Lehrer adds.

Companies are stopping short, however, of actually returning to traditional-style offices, with their many more individual rooms, doors and desks. Part of the reason is economic: Traditional offices are more costly in terms of materials, design and space. Instead, companies that want to redesign are looking for ways to create privacy zones amid otherwise open-office plans.

Office culture has long teetered between having private spaces and then having them taken away. Google and other tech companies led the recent rush to the more-open approach, a practice that was hastened by the need for cost-cutting during the 2008-09 recession. (Open-plan office space costs as much as 50% less per employee than more traditional office layouts, because of its smaller footprint and lower build-out costs.)

Many open-office designs were adopted also because they were thought by experts to produce a more collaborative atmosphere. Such designs come in two basic setups: With “benching,” also known as “hoteling,” employees don’t have assigned desks and work wherever there’s an available space; with “desking,” each employee gets a small personalized workspace in a large open room. As many as 20% of offices use at least one of the two plans, according to Haworth Inc., an office-design company based in Holland, Mich.

Companies with open offices, however, soon encountered the downsides. For one thing, workers took increased sick days—a 2014 Swedish study of more than 1,800 workers found open-plan workers were twice as likely to take sick days as workers in traditional offices. The reason, the researchers hypothesized: the spread of germs and increased environmental stress of working in an open space. Workers also complained of an inability to focus and were generally less content with their work environment, the study said.

Now, companies are again “realizing people actually have to be productive,” says Ned Fennie, partner at San Francisco-based architecture firm Fennie + Mehl.

One company to back away from open-plan offices, in response to employee complaints about a lack of space for more private conversations and informal meeting spaces, is Silicon Valley Bank, based in Santa Clara, Calif. Working with Fennie + Mehl, the company in 2012 began to add more private spaces, including “phone booths” that can seat one or two people, and modest “huddle” rooms for small meetings. The company has also doubled the number of chairs per employee, following a 2-to-1 ratio used by office designers that gives workers more choices of where and how to work. Silicon Valley Bank’s plan makes it possible for employees to work at their own desks or in a common area.

In the past four years, the bank has either renovated or built new offices from scratch so that 60% of its 42 locations have more private areas. The firm is now “getting positive feedback” from employees, says Tom Suro, the bank’s director of real estate workplace services.

Read the full article on the Wall Street Journal.