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5 Ways to Survive an Open Office Setup

Maximize productivity—and provide ample places for quiet reflection—with these strategies.

When I started working in New York during the 1990s, the office setup looked like this: cubicles for most people, offices for senior employees, and a corner office with a view for upper management.

By the time I transitioned to startups in Silicon Valley, the cube walls had come down. Bosses sat at open desks with their employees. Today, 70% of offices now structure their space this way. And like any trend, open plans have their fans and their haters. Advocates say they create an egalitarian environment. But research has found that employees who work in open offices take significantly more sick days and report higher levels of stress and lower levels of productivity.

The reality is, you may not have a choice. When you’re running a small business, keeping costs low is critical, and open office plans tend to be the most affordable option. If you’re a freelancer or a small company, you may find yourself in a co-working space shared with dozens of other startups and individual workers. As the CEO and founder of Hint, I made sure we designed our Bay Area headquarters and our retail store across the street to be buoyant and bright. We use an open office plan at our HQ, and we have other employees around the country who work out of hot desks at spaces like WeWork or The Wing.

No matter how many people work at your company, there are low-cost ways to make open offices productive and build in pockets of quiet. Here are five things that have made all the difference.

1. Create private spaces.

Between 16% and 50% of the population are considered introverts—people who find “alone time” energizing and might find social settings draining. For them, a lack of physical barriers in an office can be distressing. I always try to be mindful that not everyone performs their best in open seating. Make sure there are ample conference rooms for meetings and phone calls.

At our HQ in San Francisco, we have this great mini-conference room in the back of office building #3 that has a big couch and leads to a deck patio that’s perfect for outdoor meetings and lunch breaks when the weather is nice. When the conference rooms or meeting areas are fully booked, we encourage people to take a walk around the block. That’s my preference: I’m big on active meetings, walking and talking around our cute little neighborhood. Another option that could be better for your company might be installing pop-up “booths” from companies such as Zenbooth or Talkbox.

2. Be generous with flexible and remote work.

Some employees find it extremely difficult to focus on the din of other people’s conversations, email chimes, and never-ending pings. According to researchers at the University of California Irvine, employees are interrupted every 11 minutes on average. And it takes them 25 minutes to fully resume whatever they were working on before the disruption took place. A flexible remote work policy is always a good idea for work-life balance reasons. And it also can help lower the stress levels of employees who have a big deadline and find that the day-to-day office environment too distracting. If somebody tells you they need to work from home to get something done, encourage them to do it. They’ll probably get it done faster, and their work will be of a higher quality. That said, nothing will ever replace face-to-face time with your team. So while we’re super flexible at Hint, we also believe it’s important to interact as a team weekly to help generate good ideas and find smart solutions.

3. Explore alternative seating.

You may not be able to give your employees the comfort of a corner office, but you can help them maximize their use of space. Some employees may prefer a standing desk for alleviating back or neck pain. Or they may want to use an exercise ball as a chair; some Hint team members swear by it. You can also fill open spaces with couches, chairs, bean bags, or even hammocks to give employees varied environments to get their work done or just take a breather. Some of these options, like standing desks (a popular choice at Hint), may also be covered by your company’s health insurance plan.

On occasion, we like to switch up our desk arrangements to give people new opportunities to engage with other team members and new hires. As a fast-growing company, we have lots of new faces floating around and encourage people to pitch-hit in other departments if they’re interested in learning about areas outside of their wheelhouse.

4. Know when it’s time to grow.

An overcrowded office is a stressful one. And in workplaces where staffers float from desk to kitchen to conference room to a common area, you sometimes learn the hard way that you’ve outgrown your surroundings. Keep tabs on how crowded your desks are and also on how your conference rooms and “phone booth” spaces are getting used. If employees are scrambling to book them or teams are hovering outside of conference rooms, this is a telltale sign that it’s time to expand. If you’re stuck in a long-term lease, you can consider a corporate subscription to bookable conference rooms through a service like Breather or LiquidSpace.

We have five different offices and a storefront on Union Street in San Francisco. We opened the fourth building in October 2017 but were growing so quickly that we needed to add the fifth less than two years later in March 2019. It’s important to offer employees plenty of space, including beautiful common areas and pleasant work environments, to feel creative, collaborative and productive. Lots of people tend to eat lunch in the garden in office #5, and we’ll host meetings in this green space on sunny days. This big backyard is what makes Hint a dog-friendly workplace, too. We’re constantly looking for new mini offices to add to our Hint campus.

5. Make the most of common areas.

One of the biggest criticisms of open plans is that they don’t spark more face-to-face interaction between employees. A study from Harvard Business School found that employees in open-plan offices spend 73% less time interacting with one another face-to-face. As the boss, you can create common spaces and incentivize your employees to gather there, whether it’s with board games or snacks or a spontaneous office happy hour. They’ll get to know each other better, and a sense of community can cut down on stress.

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