It’s tough to disagree with the ideas driving the open office movement: more collaboration, egalitarian design, enhanced productivity. Yet as the cubicles came down, the reality of open floor plans set in — more distractions, lower morale and more absenteeism. The backlash has even given way to ‘BYO privacy’ widgets. Even so, it’s estimated that 70% of US workplaces have open designs (and it’s particularly popular for agencies). We talked to a handful of agencies about their floor plans and the ultimate impact on recruiting and retaining talent.

‘Staff members requested privacy’

“Bucking the trend, Levick decided to move forward with a largely traditional floor plan because most staff members requested a work space with a certain degree of privacy. Levick staffers at the director level and above have their own offices, while junior staffers sit in cubicles with walls over five feet high. The firm found that employees, who are frequently working under tight deadlines and pressure, were more productive and focused when they were offered their own space free of distractions. We are also cognizant of the confidential and sensitive client work we interact with on a daily basis, so an open room of 50 people would not make sense.

The executives I spoke to found that at other public relations firms, open office layouts were a double-edged sword in terms of culture. An open layout has its perks; for employers, it is cost-efficient. For employees, sitting with colleagues creates a support system and sense of community, in addition to endless jokes and funny stories. While this system allows junior staffers to feel as though they are on a more equal playing field with their superiors, it can also contribute to a ‘work from home’ mentality. Employees tend to stay away from the office when they need solitude and in effect, it can actually lead to isolation and miscommunication. With distractions and limited private space, and not to mention communal germs, the consensus at Levick is that an open floor plan is not an ideal working scenario for communications professionals.”

All employees are on an open plan — even the executive team’

“Candidates don’t always ask directly about the office layout but are always interested in the culture of the agency, and our open-plan layout plays a large part in showing who we are and what we place value on as a company – namely collaboration, integration and accessibility – so it is always mentioned during the recruitment process.

All employees are on a completely open plan floor with no offices at all, not even for the executive team, reflecting our completely open and accessible culture, allowing people to work alongside and learn from a range of colleagues with different experience and seniority, something that often appeals to candidates.” - Denise Kaufmann, Ketchum London’s CEO


‘They wanted a door they could close’

“Almost everyone said they wanted an office with a door they could close. With all of the thinking, writing and pitching that we do, our folks enjoy being able to work privately and quietly, when they needed to. (I must confess, I feel the same way.)

All of the senior folks have their own offices. Our junior staff, interestingly, loves to ‘bunk’ together in a large, shared office – a fact I attribute to their recent college experiences. Three of them are currently sharing a large office and are very happy. We also have a living room-like setting, where folks can gather to brainstorm, meet or just hang out. In our conference room, you’ll often find folks who have wandered in from their offices with their laptops. Everyone is doing their own thing, but typing away happily in the presence of others.” - Anne Buchanan, president of Buchanan Public Relations


‘It sends a message that we’re truly egalitarian’

“When we initially implemented an open environment in 2002, it did shrink the pool of senior candidates since a certain percent of senior folks saw our open environment as a negative. Now, nearly 15 years later, I don’t know if it’s a byproduct of the Silicon Valley culture or today’s senior folks not being wed to an office, but it no longer comes up as a negative in recruiting. Perhaps the fact that I sit in the same open environment (no office) sends a message that we’re truly an egalitarian culture.

As far as balancing collaboration with quiet space, one key is having enough conference rooms and other spaces that allow folks to get away  for some privacy.

It’s also worth pointing out that a flexible work environment plays into the equation. If someone is toiling on a writing assignment, he or she might work from home that day or for a half day. Same story if the person has a concentration of phone time on his or her schedule. I suppose this gets into a third point, that this balancing act calls for planning.” - Lou Hoffman, CEO of the Hoffman Agency

'PR people are sometimes kept in the dark'

"We have numerous 'quiet rooms,'  a large patio and areas throughout the agency to get some private time. We’re big on collaboration, so we love the open concept.  And, we are organized by teams, not  by departments. So we have an art director sitting next to a PR person who is across from a paid media specialist. It is a fantastic way to learn about all the marketing disciplines and always be in the know on what’s happening on the team. In other IMC agencies, the PR people are sometimes kept in the dark about what advertising is doing and vice versa. We’ve eliminated that." - Judy Lynes, Phelps 

‘This is balanced by a flexible work schedule’

“Our open environment is an important part of the culture that promotes teamwork and collaboration. Equally important are the creative spaces and ‘living’ environments that offer informal areas that are quiet and lend themselves to smaller group discussions. We also have a large number of small conference rooms that are great for thinking, writing and individual phone conversations. This is balanced by a flexible work schedule with weekly work from home days which can also provide the quiet space sometimes needed for more in depth thinking, planning and analysis.” - Kathleen Gratehouse, Highwire PR principal

Responses edited for length
Top image Highwire PR, bottom image HCK2