Employees can weigh in with their opinions all they want, but they usually don’t get much of a say in the matter.
But instead of making a top-down decision, executives at Microsoft Research's new New York City office decided to use the open-office debate as a little social experiment.
The 30-researcher lab opened two years ago, but it took until recently for it to settle into permanent office space. When it came time to design the layout of the new digs in the Chelsea neighborhood, Microsoft did it the democratic way: by taking a vote.
The result? The New York City office is now the only Microsoft Research office of 13 labs worldwide to have an open office layout.
Jennifer Chayes, managing director of the lab, attributes this to the collaborative nature of the lab's work. Some researchers are computer scientists and data scientists. Others are social scientists. Almost always, they need to collaborate to get projects done.
"This research lab is more collaborative and more interactive than any group of researchers I have ever seen," Chayes says. "At any other Microsoft Research facility, it would have been slam dunk the other way: 90 to 10. And here, maybe it’s 60-40 in favor of open seating. Because of this feeling that they want to be seeing each other, and interacting with each other and collaborating with each other."
The decision was contentious, and not everyone is happy. No one has their own private office. Chayes herself tends to prefer more privacy, and often reserves a space in the conference room when she's there. Since the facility is a social science office, Chayes suggests that next time, an alternative voting scheme—one that takes into account the fervor of people’s opinions, rather than a simple "majority rules"—might be preferable.
While most companies can’t afford to redesign or move office spaces based on opinion polls, a more democratic method to office layout planning could be useful when it’s feasible. There’s a lot of research out there about how to design for maximization of productivity, creativity, and collaboration, but in the end, it’s the people who have to get work done in the space who matter the most.