Although apprehensive at first, employees at waste-handling and recycling equipment company Wastequip have had more than a year to adjust to its Silicon Valley-like shared and open office space.
The trend is making its way into new industries, and Wastequip decided to try it out when the company moved its corporate headquarters within SouthPark in August2013.
The effects of open office environments have been the subject of many recent published articles and research papers, which find that while open office space allows more communication and interaction, there are some drawbacks.
Open office spaces have proven successful for creative industries and team-centric work cultures, such as Google, but noncreative industries are starting to also pursue collaborative, social work environments.
“I’m working with three or four different types of clients right now and they’re all wanting more open space,” said Robby Johnson, principal at Charlotte-based Robert Johnson Architects.
He said one of his company’s clients was a cancer research company, another was a brokerage and another was a real estate company.
“Everybody wants their offices to be like Google,” he said.
Ruth Cline, partner and interiors studio principal at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting in Charlotte, described open and shared office spaces as a “normal alternative solution,” and said that although it’s not a new concept, it is something that gained a lot of ground recently in office planning.
Wastequip’s 11,000-square-foot office is littered with large metal desks – all shared by several employees – as opposed to cubicles, and is accented by a white, grey and royal blue color scheme. Windows wrap around the entire office, which is centered around a wall-less employee break room that includes a large, flat-screen television mounted on the wall with stainless-steel coolers on both sides, and a bar.
The company’s executives, including CEO Martin Bryant, work in the same open space as interns, and only four of the office’s 75 employees have enclosed offices with doors, which are designated for employees whose jobs demand confidentiality, such as human resources representatives and the company’s payroll officer.
Bryant, who’s worked with Toyota and Dana Corp. in the past, said he had always worked in open office environments, and knew it was what he wanted for Wastequip when it came time to relocate.
He said the transition has been an overall success, but also acknowledged the difficulties of working in an open office environment, such as the lack of privacy and noise disruption.
Psychologist Matthew Davis looked at the benefits and risks of open office spaces in a 2010 study, “The Physical Environment of the Office: Contemporary and Emerging Issues.”
He found that an open office environment generates greater group sociability and increases the amount of interaction among employees, which he discovered can also be distracting to employees and negatively impact their ability to focus.
But Bryant said the lack of privacy actually encourages employees to stay on task because it’s easy for others to see whether they’re working or slacking off. The office also has eight conference rooms – with capacities ranging from only a couple of people to more than a dozen people – that employees can schedule for private use at any time.
Wastequip employees indicated that the amount of noise was an issue, but they have found ways to reduce noise disturbances.
“We had some people we had to strategically place in certain areas because they’re loud talkers when they’re on the phone,” Bryant said.
The office also has several white noise machines hanging from the ceiling that generate a constant, subtle hum – similar to the sound of an air conditioner – that muffles some of the noise.
But privacy and noise issues aside, Bryant said a big draw for companies considering open office space is that they can be cheaper than traditional spaces.
He said 41 employees occupied about the same amount of space in the new office that 24 employees occupied in the company’s old office, where every employee had their own enclosed space.
Johnson said open office spaces save companies money in the long run, but that the initial cost can vary greatly depending on whether companies settle for built-in furniture or buy their own furniture.
Bryant said furniture was one of the biggest factors Wastequip considered. He said the office’s desk units that each seat six employees, which was one of several desk styles in the office, cost about $15,000 each.
Johnson said the advantage of purchasing furniture is that it gives companies more freedom and flexibility.
“Say you want to move things around, you can just pick them up and move them and the same goes for if you relocate,” he said.
Bryant said an open office environment wasn’t for everyone, such as companies that handle a lot of private information or that require a lot of physical storage space, but that it had done what it was meant to do for Wastequip.
Said Cline, “It’s not a one size fits all, but we do see that as a very common utilization for space today.”