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Thursday
Nov132014

Turning the Page: Publishers Embrace Open Workspaces and Define a New Era

Hachette Book Group © Garrett Rowland

It’s no secret that publishing is undergoing a transition of a magnitude not seen since the days of Guttenberg. Technological upheaval caused by the rise of digital media has impacted the publishing business in profound ways. And this has forced publishing companies to dramatically modify their daily routines. Today, cross-functional teams, impromptu meetings, and lively strategy sessions are part of the daily routine, along with the quiet contemplative work style this industry has previously been known for.

The lasting stereotype of publishing companies’ workspaces as one private office next to another next to another is why anyone who steps into the new headquarters of the Hachette Book Group may think they mistakenly stumbled upon the office of a tech company or creative agency. Hachette recently moved into an office in midtown New York that features a completely open office plan. CEO Michael Pietsch sits in a cubicle identical to those occupied by entry level staff members. Books fill sleek, modern bookshelves throughout Hachette’s new offices — in conference rooms, reception areas, libraries, and workspaces — so books have a real presence in the new space. Stacks of manuscript are still scattered about, but that’s one of the few similarities between Hachette’s new headquarters and its old one.

Hachette Book Group © Garrett Rowland

Why did Hachette opt to inhabit the type of workspace that some see as incongruous for an industry reliant on individual focus work? Simply put, the old scheme of individual offices connected by a maze of hallways did more than support solitary editing. It created a lonely environment and stifled the organic creativity that occurs when colleagues can spontaneously interact.

As Pietsch recently told The New York Times, he had grown to hate “that corner office” in Hachette’s old headquarters. He even found it “incredibly isolating.” While searching for a new headquarters, Pietsch visited a few open office plans and was wowed by the “energy and buzz and sense of excitement of collaborative human endeavor that really was kind of exhilarating.” When he first mentioned the possibility of moving to an open office plan workspace, his colleagues were taken aback. Publishing is an industry moored to established practices and longstanding customs and the idea of radically changing the company’s work environment was, unsurprisingly, met with a healthy dose of skepticism. But Pietsch and Hachette decided such a change was needed. Since moving into their open office plan headquarters, the company has not looked back. Pietsch and his colleagues have learned to not only embrace the open office plan but harness its creative energy.

Hachette Book Group © Garrett Rowland

Hachette is not the only publishing company that has transitioned from an old-school cellular office to a modern open office plan and in fact there are longstanding precedents in the industry such as the open-plan newsroom that have been around a long time. Suffice to say, these new open plan offices have not thrown publishing companies into disarray as some skeptics predicted. On the contrary, editors and staff members have adapted quickly to this type of office design, which has long been the norm at tech companies.

The publishing industry’s march towards open office plans is partly motivated by economic concerns—replacing private offices with open plan workspaces tends to reduce real estate costs—and partly stems from the industry’s need to adapt to an economic environment in which speed to market and a diverse array of quality products are necessary to make margins work.

Hachette Book Group © Garrett Rowland

Open office plans, which feel more dynamic and can imbue inhabitants with a dose of energy, do a better job at supporting the faster paced collaborative work that’s becoming a staple of publishing than endless hallways filled with individual offices. This is evidenced by the fact that the market sectors which make up Richard Florida’s creative class—tech firms, design firms, creative agencies—tore down the walls separating private workspaces years ago and embraced unifying open space work zones. That’s not to say achieving privacy in open office workspaces is impossible. On the contrary, most open office plans feature snugly designed workspaces that are separated from the hum of the floor. These spaces are shared by colleagues and used whenever an editor needs to take a private call with an agent or spend an hour delving into the details of a query letter or manuscript.

When considering the ramifications of open office plans, which are being embraced by industries as different as financial services and oil companies, it’s important to understand that we’ve reached a point in modern work culture where workers crave buzz rather than solitude. This is why a preponderance of people voluntarily work in coffee shops every single day. It’s why law firms are tearing down the literal walls that sequester associates and placing lawyers in rooms where they can work side-by-side. There are still places needed for concentrative work, when needed, they just aren’t the only option in these workplaces. The publishing industry will always value the editor’s role in taking a rough manuscript or article and molding that rough draft into a book, magazine or newspaper.

Companies like Hachette are proving that this process can be augmented by an open office plan.

Hachette Book Group © Garrett Rowland

Johnathan Sandler is one of the global leaders of Gensler's media practice, a role in which he digs deep to uncover how an organization works, its business objectives, and ways the new environment can help facilitate desired change. Contact him at johnathan_sandler@gensler.com.
Linda Jacobs has extensive experience with high-end workplace, financial, professional services, and entertainment clients gained over 25+ years in New York. Contact her at linda_jacobs@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

Good post and i liked the way u explained
11.18.2014 | Unregistered CommenterKinindia

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