Office layout is one of the most important decisions an employer can make with regard to office design. The choice between an open-plan office and a more “closed” office consisting of multiple private offices isn’t always a simple one.
In the business world of today, the open office has become the trendy choice, and it certainly does have its benefits. Yet the decision shouldn’t be made haphazardly. While this type of design has its benefits, there are plenty of downsides to an open-space office that should be considered.
The open office upsides
The shift from private offices to a more open design has been happening gradually since the 1950’s, and there are several good, and some not-so-good, reasons for this.
The most commonly expressed advantage of this type of office layout is increased collaboration among coworkers. With no walls between them, it’s easy and often even inevitable for people to turn to those seated nearby with questions and ideas.
Because communication is easier, it also takes less time. No need to pick up a phone or walk to a coworker’s office when you can just turn to your right or left with a question. This, oddly enough, often leads to less idle chit-chat. When communication takes less effort, people feel less need to justify their communication with more unimportant talk.
When working side-by-side is the norm, working together on projects is greatly simplified, and will often happen spontaneously. Compared to hiding out in their own private offices, office workers sharing an open space are much more likely to work together and share ideas.
This has been one of the leading drivers of the growth of open floorplans. It’s easy to recognize the increased expense of creating separate office space for each employee. Fewer walls and physical barriers like cubicles means less cost in setting up the office initially.
It’s not just the lack of walls—eliminating private offices means that less space is needed as well. Since working spaces are shared, more people can fit under a single roof, making this the clearly more cost-effective option.
While office walls are semi-permanent physical barriers that aren’t easily moved, an open floorplan allows much greater flexibility. Rearranging an open-plan office design can be done at the whims of the office’s inhabitants and with little effort. Even when cubicles are added, the barriers can be moved as easily as the rest of the office furniture.
The increased flexibility means additional cost savings, too. If you hire a few new people, it’s relatively simple to add a couple more desks within the existing space.
While this may seem subjective, few people would argue that a bunch of private spaces behind closed doors is more visually appealing than a wide-open floorplan. If your office’s appearance is an important factor in your business, or important to you personally, an open office space will have a strong appeal.
Comparing an open office plan to a cubicle-filled space shows an even greater contrast. Most people, even among those who appreciate cubicles, would agree that those dividers give any space a cold, unappealing industrial quality.
From the perspective of those in charge, open office space makes it easy to see what’s happening and what your employees are up to. It isn’t necessary to “check in” on employees behind closed doors, since there are no more closed doors. Employees are less likely to slack off when they know that everyone can see what they are up to.
This isn’t just a management advantage, though. When private space is eliminated, management becomes more accessible to employees, too. In a healthy office environment, this leads to improved relationships between leadership and staff. In a less-than-healthy environment, however, it can breed resentment and maybe even a bit of paranoia among the staff. The feeling of being watched at all times can even become a bit of a distraction.
An open office might give a more positive impression to those who visit your office. While cubicles and private office spaces are often associated with outdated ideas, the open workspace is seen as creative and forward-thinking. In industries where public impression is important, this can make an open office layout the obvious choice.
The downsides of an open layout
It’s certainly not all positive. There are those who consider the open floorplan to be a disaster.
Noise is one of the most obvious problems of an open-plan office, and it is compounded as an office grows. The ease and openness of communication in an open space is also one of the design’s biggest drawbacks.
While the ability to work together on projects is great, it only benefits those who are actually working together. If you have a solo project you need to get done, all that collaboration going on around you is nothing but a distraction.
Noise is more than just a distraction, though, and it’s not just the loud conversations that are problematic. According to at least one study, “Even moderately noisy open offices might contribute significantly to health problems such as heart disease.”
Noise is problematic, but it is not the only form of distraction common in an open layout. “Visual noise” is movement happening at the periphery of your vision, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand.
And although audible noise can clearly be distracting, not all noise is the same. Indistinguishable sound isn’t the problem; rather, it’s the sounds that you can just barely make out—snippets of conversations, for example. Hearing half a conversation may actually be more problematic than sudden outbursts, since you’re likely to unconsciously try to understand the conversation.
In open offices, these kinds of distractions abound. Loud phone conversations can be among the most problematic, since you’re rarely hearing more than one side. Then there are work-related conversations that you almost can’t help but listen to—they are, after all, at least a little bit pertinent to your own work.
When you have your own office with a lockable door, there’s little worry about leaving your personal items on your desk while you step out for lunch. Even with the door unlocked, your stuff is generally pretty safe. But when your desk is right out in the open, it takes almost no effort for unscrupulous coworkers to snap up your wallet while you’re in the restroom.
Not every workplace conversation is meant for everyone’s ears. Occasionally a confidential call or private conversation calls for a bit more seclusion. Without a closed office space to conduct these conversations, people are forced to improvise, taking conversations outside of the office environment. This is far from an ideal solution, yet it occurs on a regular basis in open plan office spaces.
A fact of work life for many businesses is that staying home sick is frowned upon and sometimes even seen as a sign of weakness. Most people who have been working for any length of time have felt the pressure to go into the office when they aren’t feeling well.
Even though most studies show that working when sick reduces productivity compared to taking time to recover, unwell employees are a common part of the work environment. During cold and flu season, it’s not uncommon for a bug to get passed around the office for months.
In an office with available private space, those who aren’t feeling well can stay behind closed doors for most of the workday, limiting the spread of their illness. Yet in an open working environment, personal space is shared, and so are your germs.
Each of the problems above, when added together, create what’s possibly the biggest problem with eliminating private space: lower productivity. While collaboration might happen with greater frequency when everyone shares one large space, the overall result hasn’t been increased output.
Distraction in an open office environment is almost an expectation. Chatter among those working in close quarters creates an often noisy environment where work is disrupted repeatedly. It’s for this reason that headphones are so commonplace in these settings. In the end, it’s clear that most distractions end up reducing your overall productivity.
So is there a middle ground? Is there a way to get the benefits of an open layout while minimizing or even eliminating the problems? The solution might be a hybrid approach, combining an open floorplan with a few private spaces for use as needed. Adding office phone booths and privacy pods to that open layout gives people some momentary privacy when they need it, while still allowing for cooperation and communication.
Give us your thoughts... Have you experienced both types of office environments? Which do you prefer? Are there advantages or disadvantages we didn’t mention? Comment below.