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3 Types of Human Resource Policies that Make or Break an “Open Office” Layout

In the last few years, many businesses — including high profile enterprises like Google — have said goodbye to conventional offices, and replaced them with what is known in office design circles as an “open office” layout. This is where walls and barriers are eliminated (or kept to a minimum), so that cross-functional teams can co-locate, spontaneously interact, and organically collaborate.

However, something unfortunate has happened on the road to open office happiness: instead of enhancing productivity and performance, and rather than bringing people together, it is DRIVING. EMPLOYEES. CRAZY. In fact, the problem has become so stressful and dysfunctional, that some businesses are reverting back to traditional layouts — including a return to what researchers at the University of Sydney discovered was, is, and probably will always be the most employee-hated member of the office furniture kingdom: cubicles.

Surprisingly, the root cause of this open office counter-revolution isn’t an indictment of the approach itself — because some organizations are indeed enjoying significant results. Do they have a more flexible, creative or open-minded workforce? Do they have softer bean bags and better HVAC systems? Are they just luckier?

None of the above. The common denominator that connects organizations that are reaping the rewards of an open office — and what separates them from their counterparts that are wondering what went wrong — isn’t a question of layout decisions. It’s largely a matter of HR policies.


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Considering this, here are three types of HR policies that organizations that have implemented — or are thinking about implementing — an open office should adopt. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before what should be a rewarding decision turns into a regretful dilemma:


  1. Privacy and Confidentiality Policies


Team that are used to openly discussing private or confidential matters (they are not always the same thing) sometimes struggle to adapt to open office environments, where anything and everything can be overheard — even by those doing their best to avoid eavesdropping. Implementing privacy and confidentiality policies can help bridge the gap long enough for a new version of “common sense” to take root.


  1. Acceptable Workplace Behavior Policies


Pen clickers. Whistlers. LOUD TALKERS. Knuckle crackers. “Who wants a bite of my sardine and garlic submarine?” eaters. These are just some of the people who need to make adjustments in an open office layout, because sounds and smells that were previously blocked or diminished by walls and partitions, are now much more amplified — and far more annoying. Without an appropriate policy in place, instead of resolving complaints appropriately and professionally, employees who’ve reached their breaking point may take matters into their own hands and do something they and everyone else regrets — like scream, throw a laptop through a window, or quit (or all perhaps all three).


  1. “Heads-Down” Times


One of the biggest complaints that many employees have about open office layouts, is that some folks engage in non-stop gab fests. And even if most of the conversation is work related (which isn’t usually the case), it’s simply not conducive to a concentrated, focused work experience. Yes, some employees can choose to wear ear plugs or headphones. But to be fair and practical, organizations should have designated “heads-down” times — such as between 1-3pm each day — where open dialogue should be the exception rather than the norm. Colleagues that want to chat and can’t wait can do so in meeting rooms or the lunch room, etc.


The Bottom Line


An open office design isn’t just an alternative or progressive type of space configuration. In some ways, it’s a fundamentally different way of working — which means that HR policies that worked in the past don’t necessarily translate into the new environment. Updating or introducing policies to support the “new normal” is vital to ensure that the open office is an asset, instead of a liability.


Learn More


At PIVOTAL, our team of human resource experts will work closely with your leadership team to develop policies that support your people, and keep your organization stable and on the right track — not just in terms of productivity and performance, but also in terms of meeting all regulatory and compliance obligations. To learn more, contact us today.



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