Finding your quiet workplace: As offices get more collaborative, workspaces fulfill need for privacy
FARGO — Walls have come tumbling down in workplaces everywhere. Open floor plans have replaced individual offices, encouraging collaboration and maximizing square footage.
But all that openness can have its downside, especially for introverts.
Research in office design has shown a need for quiet spaces — places within a workplace that offer peace and privacy for people who want to think, have a personal conversation, or put their head down and work.
In a study by furniture manufacturer Steelcase, 31 percent of U.S. full-time employees said they have to work away from their primary location to accomplish tasks. Also, 95 percent said they need quiet, private places in the workplace for confidential conversations, but 41 percent don’t have them.
“In the workplace, the trend we’ve seen is companies want to move to much more collaborative workspaces,” said CharRae Chwialkowski, director of design for Hannaher’s in Fargo and Gaffaney’s in Grand Forks, which sell Steelcase furniture. “If you’re open all day long and you have a lot of noise, how do you get that concentration time?”
The power of quiet
Steelcase, with headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich., partnered with Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” to design office layouts that incorporate privacy.
These quiet spaces may accommodate one or two people, and typically feature built-in technology, Chwialkowski said. They may feature an electronic scheduling device or be designated as first come, first service.
One office Chwialkowski’s company recently designed with quiet spaces in mind was the North Dakota University System Core Technology Services building in Grand Forks.
In addition to an open layout, there are enclaves well-suited for staff taking part in an online meeting or making a private phone call, said Rich Lehn, assistant to the chief information officer.
“I’ve seen them used quite heavily,” Lehn said. “Sometimes, the spaces are more heavily used than their own cubicle space.
“If you’re moving into more of a collaboration environment, you definitely still need to have those spaces for staff to step in,” he added.
Chwialkowski said the goal is to achieve a balance of different types of spaces — private and shared, for one and for many. She encourages companies to think about their whole building in terms of available workspaces, not just individual desks.
Offices can create quiet spaces without remodeling, Chwialkowski said, for example by placing a comfortable chair behind a fabric screen.
Greg Cant, dean of the Offutt School of Business at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., said the move to open workspaces started as early as the 1950s.
The idea was to create camaraderie and prompt conversations, he said. But often the nature of the work itself wasn’t considered when the layout was changed.
Cant said studies have shown open layouts have had a detrimental effect, the noise and interruptions decreasing productivity and increasing stress levels.
Now, the pendulum is swinging back.
In addition to open plan offices being tweaked to create private spaces, Cant said he’s also heard of a new type of open planning that rethinks the idea.
Those spaces, he said, feature a combination of sealed-off offices (perhaps with glass walls) for intensive work time and other spaces designed to encourage social interaction, especially with people across departments.
“The difficulty inside your office is they’re kind of constrained interactions,” Cant said. “Nothing is likely to happen outside the box because it’s all controlled interactions.”
The modern notion creates spaces that reject the negatives of open planning, but allow “interruptions that have a positive impact,” Cant said.
“I’m sure there’s no magic model,” he said. “It isn’t all or nothing. It’s trying to get the best out of both.”