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Nicklaus: Bloomberg wants to redesign White House offices. Changing the culture would be a tougher task

Nicklaus: Bloomberg wants to redesign White House offices. Changing the culture would be a tougher task

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HOK turns warehouse into office space for Tyson Foods

HOK has converted a trucking warehouse in Springdale, Ark., into open office space for Tyson Foods. (HOK handout)

For a while, Michael Bloomberg’s office design idea was getting more attention than his jobs plan or his health care policy.

The presidential candidate and former New York mayor tweeted in late December that, if elected, he would turn the White House East Room into an open-plan office. Bloomberg would reserve the Oval Office for a few official functions and spend most of his workday with his team in a bullpen-like setting.

The tweet touched off mockery from outlets left, right and center. Wags suggested Bloomberg should apply to manage space for WeWork instead of running the country, and more serious critics pointed to studies showing that open offices hurt productivity, cause stress and even spread disease.

As someone who’s spent a career in open-plan newsrooms, however, I’m here to tell you they can work. When any co-worker is approachable, regardless of rank, everyone feels like part of a team.

Sure, there are distractions when laughter breaks out in the features department or the daily editors’ meeting becomes overly animated (not pointing any fingers here), but there’s also serendipity when a reporter hears what a colleague is working on and suggests a useful source.

An open office isn’t for every organization, or every worker, but the design is gaining popularity in the corporate world.

“The idea of getting called into the boss’ office has always been off-putting,” says Valerie Greer, a professor of practice at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. “The benefit of open design is being able to have more casual conversations and quick verbal exchanges as opposed to always having to communicate by email or text.”

Greer doesn’t see why the design couldn’t work at the highest levels of government. “It’s provocative to think about democratizing the physical space and promoting conversations between people,” she said.

Open offices get a bad rap partly because companies pursue them for the wrong reasons. Moving to an open office can save money, but employers that do it on the cheap will probably make workers unhappy.

“There are a lot of bad open offices out there, and those are the stories that often get published,” says Ken Crabiel, who leads CannonDesign’s St. Louis commercial practice.

“You have to avoid the sea of work stations at all cost,” adds his colleague Michelle Rotherham, an associate vice president. She says most modern offices need a variety of environments, including private spaces where workers can avoid interruptions and collaborative spaces where they can talk without distracting colleagues.

Employee satisfaction scores at Zurich, an international insurance giant that is one of CannonDesign’s clients, jumped 30% after its North American headquarters moved into an open-plan building near Chicago in 2016. Zurich measured a 50% increase in interaction within and between teams.

An open workspace can be dysfunctional if the employer or landlord neglects design elements that keep noise to a minimum. Technology also should enable employees to move seamlessly between an open-office desk and a private space or a collaboration room.

“You can provide all the right spaces, but if you don’t get the acoustics and the technology right, it doesn’t work,” says Brad Liebman, a principal at St. Louis architecture firm HOK.

So, sure, Bloomberg could alienate White House staffers by cramming them into a poorly designed open office. He could also make government work better with a well designed one. The bigger challenge, the design professionals say, would be changing the White House culture to match the new space.

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