to discuss a touchy personnel matter, david lewis, president of operationsinc, a stamford, conn., human-resources consulting company, recently met with a client in a stairwell. they were so unnerved by the sound of people opening and closing doors above and below them that they retreated to mr. lewis's car in the parking lot.
that's because the client worked in an open cubicle, and the only available conference rooms had glass walls. "at least no one was going to open the car door and step in," he says.
amid a push toward openness in the workplace, more people are working in glass offices or conference rooms. some 68% of u.s. offices have an "open plan" or "open seating" design, with the desks separated by low or no walls, according to a 2010 survey by the international facilities management association, houston. the remaining office and conference rooms are often walled in glass.
the benefits are undeniable, employers say—better communication and collaboration, lower real-estate and energy costs, more natural light and expansive outdoor views for all. many employees say the light and openness improve their mood. at 22squared, an ad agency which moved 170 atlanta employees into open-plan offices a year ago, pitches that used to take two to three weeks to prepare now get done in a few days, says mike grindell, chief administrative officer.
at wray ward, a charlotte, n.c., marketing company, some clients borrow a conference room with a vertically sliding glass garage door and a glass wall, for meetings they hope will produce creative ideas. jennifer appleby, president and chief creative officer, loves the company's open office space, in which most employees work in low-walled cubicles or offices with sliding glass doors, saying it sparks employee teamwork and creativity.wray ward
but somewhere on the road to better collaboration, her own office became "this fishbowl," she says. with floor-to-ceiling glass walls facing outside, "people who drive by will call me from a block away, and see me in my office and make fun of me," says ms. appleby. "they say, 'i'm calling you and i'm watching you ignore this phone call.' "
some companies are tinkering with the designs to make them more habitable. at wray ward, managers realized after moving in that the five conference rooms were often in use. "one of the things we underestimated," ms. appleby says, "was the need for individual privacy for phone calls." the company is adding two small private rooms.
after metlife met -0.72% moved 1,100 employees to its open-plan manhattan headquarters in 2008, employees working in clear glass offices were bothered by seeing passersby while they were concentrating on phone conversations or other work, says john vazquez, the insurer's vice president, corporate services. the company added a two-foot band of frosted film on the glass.
after lewtan, a waltham, mass., technology company, moved to open-plan offices last year, managers realized occupants of its glass-walled human-resources office had an eyeball-to-eyeball view of occupants of the all-glass ceo's office nearby; "it was a little bit awkward," says brian frohn, vice president, fwray ward
then there is "the bird factor—people slamming into walls," says leigh stringer, director of innovation and research for the architectural firm hok, new york.
brandon murphy, chief strategy officer at 22squared, was walking down a hallway recently, "talking to someone, and bam, i walked right into" a glass conference-room wall, he says; "you have to keep your head up." ms. stringer says some companies are adding small "frosted bubbles or circles at eye level" to guard against this.
potentially embarrassing meetings must often be moved elsewhere. if a manager is meeting with an employee to ask, "'why do sales suck?' or 'why did we lose this client?'" a glass office leaves "no place to hide," says mr. lewis of operationsinc. lowering blinds or turning on electronic screens that make glass opaque doesn't help: onlookers still rush to email co-workers that somebody "is getting in trouble," mr. lewis says. "they might as well be on stage."
even when soundproofed, glass walls allow 50% to 100% more noise to pass through, compared with soundproofed drywall—a fact some employers don't anticipate, says robert lee, president of robert a. hansen associates, new york acoustical consultants.
at wray ward, the higher noise level "took some getting used to. we're a loud group," ms. appleby says. "you just sort of learn, if there's a conference room next door, to keep it to a low roar." about one-third to one-half of employers install white-noise devices, ms. stringer says.the juggle
many employees miss their traditional office doors; most glass offices have sliders, which must be closed more slowly and lack hooks for hanging coats or bags.
when this common complaint surfaced during metlife's advance research at other employers, mr. vasquez says, the insurer decided to install metal-frame swinging doors. "you can slam your door if you want," he says, although he hasn't seen people doing so.
gone, too, are opportunities to retreat to your private office for a nap or a round of drinks, "mad men"-style, with a colleague. neither activity is a problem at 22squared, mr. murphy says, where periodic employee happy hours enable beer-drinking right out in the open. employees also can take naps in shared lounge areas. but they do so at their own risk. chris tuff, director of social media at the company, says that if he sees co-workers napping, "i take a picture of them snoozing away, then tweet it to their boss."