IT moves to open workspaces, but not everyone is happy

In an effort to boost collaboration and attract millennials, even old-school organizations are tearing down their cubicle walls. But is shared space the best environment for serious IT work?

Five minutes. That's all it took for Christian Lang to uproot from the workspace he'd occupied for the past 18 months and move to a new spot.

No heavy lifting, no furniture to move, no desk to pack up.

Smart TVs and interactive whiteboard walls enhance team spaces at Axxess. Axxess

Smart TVs and interactive whiteboard walls enhance team spaces at Axxess. “You gain efficiency and productivity,” says CTO Andrew Olowu of the open office layout.

"The openness we have allows us to fluidly move between spots without causing much friction," says Lang, a software engineer at Dallas-based home health software developer Axxess. Lang made the move last summer so he could sit alongside the firm's mobile team, after realizing a few weeks into a new initiative that he'd be more efficient and productive if they were all together.

By moving, he eliminated any lag in getting answers, as sometimes happens even when messaging over the in-house chat function. When the project's over, Lang says, he'll simply move again.

Like a growing cadre of companies of all sizes and specialties, Axxess has fully embraced the open office concept, adopting a physical environment with few closed-off spaces or walls between its employees, who number about 250.

"We want a free flow of information," says Andrew Olowu, CTO at Axxess, which was ranked the No. 1 small organization on Computerworld's 100 Best Places to Work in IT list for 2016. "There's no natural transfer of knowledge from one group to another when they're in cubicles. In an open office, where stakeholders sit next to each other, you create a culture where creativity and serendipity happen."

Citrix Systems Citrix Systems

Citrix Systems' "huddle spaces" for small-group collaboration are equipped with video capabilities that let workers easily include remote colleagues. 

In the past decade, open workspaces have become inextricably associated with Silicon Valley startups seeking office environments that matched their casual styles and appealed to millennial workers' ideals about non-hierarchical organizations. The concept since has spread to well-established corporations including AT&T, GE and KMPG, which have moved at least some parts of their organizations to open space.

Managers and team leaders believe an open environment fosters community and supports collaboration better than a traditional office-and-cubicle setup, but not all employees are onboard, particularly those who prefer a quieter, less visually stimulating environment in which to concentrate.

What's needed, both sides agree, is a range of workspace options that address organizational goals while still meeting employees' needs -- meaning physical space that allows for private meetings and quiet concentration in addition to community seating. Even more important: Corporate culture likewise has to value collaboration and innovation if IT organizations are to truly reap the benefits of open space.

Ready to start breaking down the cubicle walls? Read on for lessons learned from six companies that have moved their tech workforce out into the open.

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