Making the Case for Open Workspaces

Some employees are excited to come to work even though they don’t have an assigned desk or office cubicle. Their office has been redesigned into an open workspace, enabling them to pick and choose where they work. Some may opt for a lounge on Monday, a café on Tuesday or a treadmill the rest of the week. The idea is to offer collaborative, creative and private workspaces that lead to better business outcomes and employers are actively embracing the trend.

That’s according to 138 real-estate executives who responded to the 2018 Americas Occupier Survey by commercial real-estate services and investment firm CBRE, 52 percent anticipate implementing some level of unassigned seating in the workplace. Another 45 percent anticipate migrating to an activity-based workspace curated for employee effectiveness and future design flexibility.

In 2016, Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati initially redesigned its Detroit office and then refurbished smaller commercial offices in three cities and several floors in its downtown Cincinnati office, says Bob Shaffer, CHRO at the bank that employs 18,000 people nationwide.

“We had an ultimate goal of having our employees do their best individual and team work so they could deliver the highest possible results,” he says, explaining that the bank’s goals included promoting employee wellness, maximizing teamwork, collaboration and engagement, and focusing on sustainability initiatives like reducing its real estate footprint.

The bank created open workspaces with unassigned desks; team huddle rooms; designated rooms for confidential phone calls; spaces with treadmills, cycling and stand up desks and, private wire transfer rooms.  At its Cincinnati office, employees can also work in the hub, a space for meetings or quiet time or at ONE67, its 15,500 sq. ft. innovation center with movable walls, pod spaces and meeting rooms.

Roughly 10 percent of its 2,500 office workers across several states no longer have assigned desks, Shaffer says. Those who do can still work anywhere on campus. During renovations, employees temporarily work in different locations or on other building floors. Approximately six months before a workspace is completed, they’re invited to open houses on refurbished floors in their building.

“We spent a lot of time on the workforce of the future . . . understanding what individuals and teams believe they need in terms of their workspace, tools and technology,” Shaffer says.

HR, IT, the change-management team and enterprise workplace services collaborate on renovation projects. Likewise, department heads also provide key feedback about which positions or employees can still be productive in unassigned spaces.

So far, no employee issues or complaints have been reported, says Shaffer, adding that eight more office renovations are scheduled this year. By 2020, the bank is expected to save $20 million in annual real estate and property management costs.

But no initiative is perfect. Since the bank’s first renovation, HR has learned that more technical support was needed before, during and after remodeling. Ensure that wi-fi works, he explains, and that there are ample workspaces for employee laptops and other devices.

“We’re going to continue learning lessons around change management strategies, communication, technical help and giving people previews of the space,” Shaffer says. “It’s been very positive overall and something we’re very committed to.”

Changing Workplace Strategies

According to CBRE, an average of 20 percent to 40 percent of traditional desks are unoccupied by remote employees, which is changing workplace strategies. According to Ali Payne, global practice leader for wellbeing and engagement at Gallagher, 10 to 15 percent of its clients support open workspaces.

But unless your workplace culture and policies support this type of environment, it won’t work.

Take a company that replaces half of its 3,000 workstations with collaboration areas, she says. If the organization doesn’t offer a work-from-home program, where will everyone work?

Just as important, consider your workforce demographics.

“If it leans more toward baby boomers, it will probably be a much longer process than if you have millenials,” says Payne. “Understand who you are as an organization first, figure out your demographics, and then lay out a strategy or plan to take this to the next level.”

While open spaces aren’t appropriate for all organizations like manufacturing plants, employers can still create them in administrative areas. Payne suggests starting small by renovating one area or floor before tackling bigger spaces.

As a partner and work/life consultant leader at Aon, Carol Sladek says open spaces are less about creating fun environments and more about flexibility for employees so they can be engaged and productive.

While it’s essential to secure leadership buy-in, she says HR must also convince “foot soldiers”–middle managers and supervisors–to climb onboard by communicating the benefits of such spaces.

Still, she says some employees may work better in their own space. So expect some pushback.

However, for remote workers, their office is their cell phone. She says there are so many virtual employees in the workforce that the office space itself is just playing catch-up.

“Make sure that those impacted really understand that this is a benefit for them and not something being done to them,” says Sladek. “Because employees want more flexibility, this is a natural evolution for the workplace.”

Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at