In the 1960s, the Hawaiian garment industry came up with the idea of “Aloha Friday”—encouraging Hawaiian businesses to let employees wear casual shirts to the office once a week—and thus, selling more Hawaiian shirts.
By the early 1990s, Aloha Fridays had infiltrated the mainland in the form of Casual Fridays. For cash-strapped companies suffering from the recession, it became a nice “no-cost perk” for employees. Then came the dot-com era and then the continued proliferation of technology firms of all shapes and sizes—but with a somewhat consistent casual dress code. There’s no better example than Mark Zuckerberg stating that he wears the same gray T-shirt every day so he can focus his energy on other decisions.
Within the commercial real estate space, I have noticed a very similar transition in office space design. A transition that has me wondering whether we have taken “casual” too far.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE OFFICE
We started long ago with executives in perimeter offices, mid-level managers with interior offices and underlings at desks in the common area—within shouting distance. While popular in countries like Germany since the 1950s, the shift toward reducing dividing walls only really took hold in the U.S. in the last decade. The higher your title, the closer your cubicle walls got to the ceiling, but only the big shots had offices.
Six or eight years ago, we started to see executives sitting in the sea of cubes in a “we’re all in this together” approach. Phone calls and sensitive meetings still happened behind closed doors but there was much less formal hierarchy reflected in office design. But here is where we began to see the pros and cons of this shift. According to research from the University of California, Irvine, employees in cubicles receive 29 percent more interruptions than those in private offices. And employees who are interrupted frequently report nine percent higher rates of exhaustion.
And then the cubicle gave way to the “open plan”—the rows of open workstations surrounded by clusters of “privacy rooms” and “collaboration spaces.” Here’s where it got really interesting.
THE IMPACT OF THE “CASUAL” OFFICE
While there are certainly benefits to the open, flexible, collaborative approach to workplace design, I might argue that some companies have taken it too far. The workplace design equivalent of a Hawaiian shirt is one thing. The equivalent of sweatpants is another.
We’ve seen a proliferation of open spaces coupled with amenities that might work very well for some companies. For others, the Monday morning brunch and ping pong tournament might prove to be distracting. According to a study by Steelcase, office workers lose an average of 86 minutes per day in productivity due to distractions associated with open-plan offices. As a result, many employees are “unmotivated, unproductive and overly stressed,” according to the study.
Several of my colleagues in the real estate industry have recently moved into new, open spaces and they can attest to some of the struggles. Desks and lockers stowed away in a closet until you come into the office. Battling for a space with a view or the privacy afforded by the side of a column.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we return to three-piece suits every day or workplace layouts that resemble the holding cells at county. But isn’t it possible that the “casual” shift has over-corrected, even if it started with the best of intentions?
I think there is great value in collaborating with colleagues and a work environment that promotes that is a good thing. But a glorified playground isn’t the answer. I think the key is paying close attention to what employees really need to be successful—and the ability to focus and maintain some amount of privacy is likely important to many.