Office Design - Boston, MAAn eye-opening article by Alyssa Giacobbe titled “Open offices seem great – until you work in one”, has given me the inspiration to write on the subject of barrier vs. barrier-free office layouts. Over the last few decades, there has been a shift in the layout of office spaces from walls to partition panels and finally to no panels, or what is now called an open office. Open offices provide no-barrier collaborative spaces, which are used in creating an atmosphere to encourage interaction, discussion, and creativity. At present, it is estimated that 80% of office spaces have this open-style office.

For some businesses, this type of atmosphere provides exactly what they expected: an open, collaborative, and discussion-based environment. For others, open-style offices have created a less productive, invasive, and noisy space that is more of a headache than the vibrant community they were hoping to create. Coworkers are shouting across the room to ask questions, headphones are being used to help employees focus on a task, and private calls are being taken outside and away from the workspace. With this now-open space and a need for privacy, many companies are compelled to add sound masking systems from companies like Cambridge Sound Masking, while others are taking on additional building construction to add private rooms and huddle spaces.

So, why is it that this open-style office space works for some and not for others? The answer is simple: it depends on what type of work is being done. For our office, the open atmosphere is fantastic and allows our designers to ask questions freely about their designs; but even we need private space. Our conference room acts as our “quiet space,” in which we can hold conference calls and meet with clients one-on-one. If we were a company that was phone-based, an open-type office would be harder to manage. We would constantly be trying to focus on our own calls while hearing the conversations of the person next to us.

The most important thing to remember in trying to decide whether an open office space is for you is balance. What spaces can benefit from an open and collaborative atmosphere? What spaces cannot? Does Jeff in accounting (someone who likes to talk and does so very loudly) maybe need a more private space? Knowing the needs of your different departments and employees will help you make the proper decisions for your office.

Another major factor for many companies is space. It is a known fact that square footage per employee has become smaller with the lowering of partitions. Every square inch counts in real estate, but does having more people substitute for the happiness and productivity of the employees?

Before you decided to take the leap to a more open and collaborative space, weigh the pros and cons, and remember that balance is key.