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Ryan Brain recalls his “very anxious night” on the eve of Deloitte Canada’s 2016 move to its new open-concept headquarters in Toronto.

At the downtown office, everyone has access to a range of places to plug in their laptops. Work can be done in lounges, cafés, at high-top desks where people can stand, around tables and at communal work stations. There are offices for confidential meetings and “heads-down work,” but most of the space is shared space, designed to encourage collaboration. No one has a designated desk. It was a radical change for the 150-year-old professional services firm, where the partners were accustomed to private offices and everyone else laid claim to cubicles.

“I wondered where everyone would flock [on move-in day],” said Mr. Brain, Deloitte Canada’s regional managing partner for Toronto. “People didn’t just run to the offices. … It was incredibly gratifying when I saw people spread out throughout a given floor and use the space as it was intended.”

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While the Deloitte move was years in the making, not all organizations analyze the business needs or consider the implications before knocking down walls to create more collaborative space, according to the Conference Board of Canada, in a recent report on the unintended consequences of workspace reorganization.

“One buzzword in office flexibility these days is ‘activity-based working’ or ABW (also called hoteling). It’s another way of saying that workers don’t get personal desks," wrote Conference Board researchers Jane Cooper and Shannon Jackson in their report, Reorganizing the Workspace: Transforming the Way Canadians Work.

“Moving from personal workstations to shared space is one way organizations are reducing their overall office footprint. ABW may help workers avoid the downsides of open-plan spaces, because they can choose where they want to sit to get their work done, including off-site. However, organizations seem much more excited about the potential of open-plan offices to improve teamwork than they are concerned about the potential negative impact on the individual’s ability to concentrate,” they say.

And, often, when organizations do install offices that employees can use for quiet work, they have glass walls, Ms. Cooper said in an interview, although some are now moving to "foggy glass" walls in response to employee privacy concerns.

Mr. Brain said Deloitte’s change has been difficult at times, but believes “even our greatest skeptics” would not want to go back to the traditional office setting.

“One of the greatest benefits has been our ability to break down hierarchy," he said. "When I come in and choose where I may want to work for a couple of hours, I could be sitting beside the newest team member who just joined us from university, or maybe next to the CEO. We really do want to foster this level of collaborative meeting.”

While this open-concept work environment is relatively new in Canada, European organizations have been experimenting with it for the past 20 years and have more extensive research on the upsides and downsides. Employees in the Netherlands appreciate the attractive interior designs, mix of workspaces, natural light and interaction with co-workers, the Conference Board said. But inability to focus and lack of privacy are common complaints, along with the “claiming behaviour” of co-workers, who park themselves in the preferred spots all day or “reserve spaces” by leaving their hats and coats at empty workstations.

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Research also indicates that younger workers are more comfortable with flexible office space arrangements. Mr. Brain believes Deloitte’s culture and workplace environment give his organization a decided edge in recruiting new graduates.

Young lawyers also value the freedom to work from whichever location makes most sense at the time, says Marcus Sixta, founder of Calgary-based family law firm Crossroads Law. The firm has a few private offices, but most of the work is done in a central open area. The money saved on real estate goes toward higher salaries, said Mr. Sixta, who works from home on occasion, in airport lounges and coffee shops.

“I just plug in the ear phones and I can really focus if I have some classical music in the ear," he said. "It doesn’t really matter where I am.”

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