Open Workspaces: Do They Actually Work?

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In many workplaces, logistical space is at a premium, which is why more and more companies have moved to shared spaces for their day-to-day employees. On the surface this may seem harmless and may even have advantages in improving communication and collaboration; however, for many employees, this sort of shared office space can have real downsides. Whether or not an open office plan will work for a department or section depends entirely on the kind of plan, the type of work being done and the individuals involved.

The Open Office Concept

An open office plan or open workspace is one that gets rid of individual offices and instead consists of a series of arranged individual desks within a larger, more open space. These desks may be separated by walls or partial walls, like cubicles; they may be arranged in groupings of anywhere from four to eight desks, or in a series of rows.

Employees can be facing each other or can be arranged for maximum privacy. The core of the concept is using a wide space with no physical divisions to house a department, team or group.

Advantages of the Open Office

An open office plan does have a number of advantages over individual office settings, mainly in overhead expense and in space perception. According to open workspace studies, these are several pros to the plan:

  • More cost-effective: The open concept allows a company to assign more employees within a floor or space than would be achievable with individual offices. This maximizes the use of valuable floor space and allows companies to save on construction costs when building new facilities.

  • Convenience: Open desk plans allow the company to group employees by department, making it easy for managers to make announcements to their entire groups or for employees with questions to be able to find a representative.

  • Increased collaboration: The perceived convenience of being able to pull a chair over to a neighbor’s desk to discuss a problem or project can increase discussions about projects and can spark feedback from other employees nearby who may have not otherwise been involved.

  • Transparency: Open offices make teammate actions public; this then makes it obvious when a coworker is spending too much time on their mobile device or on non-work related websites.

  • Lack of visible hierarchy: In open office arrangements, teammates with 20 years of experience can be sitting next to new hires, and managers can be nearby and accessible, rather than on a different floor. This helps to build a feeling of camaraderie.

Disadvantages of the Open Office

When the open office concept originated, it was expected that the physical openness and togetherness of the space would produce a mental openness and sense of collaboration that would translate into improved work output and employee satisfaction. However, new studies are showing that these expected advantages haven’t always exactly materialized. Open offices come with a set of disadvantages that in many cases have proven to offset any benefits that might have been gained by the shared space.

  • Unfavorable noise levels: One of the biggest complaints to come out of the open office trend is the general level of background noise that is produced when so many individuals share a space, as well as the lack of control employees have over this background noise. In many cases, a few hours of background noise will have measurable effects on focus and productivity, as well as increased anxiety. Employees who resort to the constant use of headphones to counter this are then faced with additional physical discomfort.

  • Casual chatter: While the open office was expected to improve collaboration on work projects, it also led to an increase in non-work related conversations and general socialization, which decreases overall productivity. Workers in open offices are more likely to be pulled into casual chats with their neighbors and are more likely to stop and talk to someone while making their way through an open office.

  • Increased distraction: The downside to having teammates easily accessible is, well, that they’re easily accessible; studies have shown that once distracted from a task, a teammate can take up to three times as long to regain their level of focus. In a popular department where people are always popping by, or for senior employees who are expected to give guidance and advice, this can result in a significant decrease in productivity and efficiency. It can be impossible to stay focused with so many background distractions.

  • Illness: This may seem obvious, but open offices also spread common illnesses faster than individual spaces; this leads to an increase in sick time taken by employees on average, but can also prove devastating for chronically ill or immunosuppressed employees who lack natural defenses.

  • Lack of privacy and control: The transparency effect of the open office translated into the feeling that employees were being watched by management and teammates all the time, leading to a decay of trust in the workplace. Not having any personal control over one’s own workspace can definitely lead to a decrease in morale, as well. 

Is an Open Office Right for Your Business?

In order to decide whether or not an open workplace concept will work for a given company or department, it’s important to consider multiple factors.

Type of work. Do the individuals in this department spend a lot of time on the phone or having one-on-one conversations? These tasks suffer in an open floor plan because both the teammate and their neighbors are distracted by the environment every time the phone rings. Likewise, jobs like R&D that can require contemplation may not work due to the overwhelming need to “look busy” in an open space.

Department overlap. Having an entire open floor doesn’t make sense for departments that don’t have significant overlap. For example, it might make sense for accounting and finance to share space, but not finance and engineering. It isn’t often that an individual will need to collaborate with every single other individual in the company; some divisions make sense.

Department personalities. The current American workplace tends to be biased towards extroverted individuals: those who thrive on getting energy from the people around them. However, introverts have a lot to offer in the workplace, including improved focus and output, but they may feel driven out of an open office environment where they’re constantly expected to be social.

Type of open office. Sometimes real estate limitations mean individual offices just aren’t an option. In these cases, an open office can be improved by considering visual barriers like cubicle walls, noise dampening tools and more natural-like lighting that helps employees feel more like their space can be comfortable and less like they’re working in a computer farm. Also, general rules like an expectation to not disturb employees who may have headphones on can help when a teammate needs to focus on a serious task but has nowhere else to go.

The Future of Office Space

It’s becoming obvious that open office plans aren’t the way of the future, but individual offices for every employee aren’t feasible, either. The solution most likely to be successful will need to provide the flexibility, control and comfort employees need to feel in a workplace while working within the limitations of existing office space. Having a variety of environments available that employees can feel comfortable moving in and out of is going to be important.