Open Floor Plans Have Become the New Standard for American Offices, but Is There A Better Way?
Just about anyone working in business today is familiar with open office design. Rather than carving up offices with cubicles or walls, the open office concept seats employees among each other in open, communal workspaces. Developed in Germany during the mid-20th century, open office plans really took root in the U.S. during the early 2000s, gaining traction among East Coast creative agencies, Silicon Valley tech firms, and other forward-thinking companies. Today, open office is the norm: roughly 70 percent of American offices use an open floor plan.
As open offices have become more established, however, the cracks in the design have begun to show. While the concept’s proponents contend that it encourages collaboration, camaraderie, flexibility, and comfort, employees complain about recurrent distractions, a lack of privacy, and a feeling of exposure in the workplace. Moreover, studies appear to disprove many of its touted benefits, indicating that open offices can actually lead to lower productivity, less collaboration, and damaged employee morale.
As younger generations of talent chafe at the open office concept, and evidence continues to mount against it, employers will need to find new designs that keep them competitive in today’s business climate. In the last few years, designers have begun to test a variety of new plans that aim to dispense with the negatives of open office floor plans, while optimizing their benefits. Below, we’ll talk more about the pros and cons of open office floor plans, and we’ll discuss promising alternatives to their one-size-fits-all approach.
The Pros of An Open Office Design
Open offices were introduced to correct the limitations of private-office or cubicle-reliant designs in an evolving business culture. Separating employees from each other, it turned out, stifled their ability to collaborate and promoted an unhealthy, individualistic office culture. Supporters of the design, mostly among management, believe that it solves these problems in many ways:
Fewer barriers between team members makes for a more collaborative environment. Employees isolated in private workspaces may not see themselves as part of a team, or may feel discouraged from seeking a co-worker’s input or advice.
Similarly, physical barriers between team members create barriers between ideas. Employees are simply less likely to communicate when doing so requires extra effort and inconvenience.
Working in a shared space, proponents argue, gives the feeling that employees are in it together, rather than independently pursuing their given tasks. Additionally, private offices often can impart a certain prestige or status. Employees should feel that they’re working as a team, not competing against each other for the better workspace.
- Cost Effectiveness
Furnishing an open workspace costs less per person and square foot than carving out private workspaces. It also makes it easier to streamline IT infrastructure.
- Managers More Accessible
Eliminating private offices reduces the intimidating feeling of walking into the boss’s office. When supervisors aren’t separated by closed doors, they become more approachable.
- Easier Team Supervision
Just as open office designs make managers more accessible to their team, it makes their team more accessible as well, allowing for more efficient supervision.
- More Flexible to Change
As companies expand or diversify, having an open floor plan allows for easier adjustments to suit new talent or more workspaces.
- More Aesthetically Pleasing
Open offices look more “modern” than their stodgy predecessors, and impart a forward-looking feel to the space.
- More Comfortable
Open spaces allow air and light into the environment, putting people at ease.
- It’s Trendy
Who wouldn’t want to follow the lead of that hip Brooklyn start-up or that Silicon Valley juggernaut?
The Cons of Open Office Design
As open office plans have been broadly adopted, many employees have raised certain grievances with the concept. Some features have directly backfired, doing the opposite of their intended benefits, while in other cases entirely unforeseen drawbacks have arisen. Here are some common complaints:
- Collaboration vs. Distraction
Though making employees more accessible to each can facilitate collaboration and communication, it can also be a frustrating distraction for talent who are trying to concentrate on a task. In some offices, this has become enough of a problem to warrant certain recognized “do not disturb” rules, i.e. when a team member is wearing headphones, leave them alone.
- Less Privacy
Employees in open offices often feel exposed to their co-workers for the entirety of the workday. Many people require at least a few moments of privacy during their day.
- Feelings of Micro-Management and Over-Supervising
Though many managers believe that open offices make them more accessible to their teams in a good way, employees often complain that they feel constantly watched by management. This can lead to a stressful environment that ultimately puts pressure on an employee and stifles their productivity.
- Increased Conflicts
Anyone who’s ever had to spend too much time around siblings during a childhood vacation knows that overexposure to one another creates conflict. This is true in the workplace as well. The stress of constant exposure can cause irritability and lead to more heated disagreements among co-workers.
- Spread of Germs
Increased contact means increased exposure to germs. This means more sick employees, which translates to lost productivity.
- Job Dissatisfaction
All these minor stressors can add up to an overall sense of unhappiness at the job, making it difficult for employers to retain their best talent.
The Harvard Study of Open Workspaces
In a recent study, researchers from Harvard University set out to empirically measure the effects of open offices on employee behavior. Do they really facilitate collaboration? Do they increase productivity? Do they boost morale?
To the contrary, what they found was that “rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.” In short, claims of increased collaboration, communication, and camaraderie were all flat wrong. Collaboration and morale actually decreases in an open workplace.
With this evidence, employers have begun to weigh the complaints of their employees more heavily against the accepted wisdom of open workspaces.
Impacts of Open Offices on Women
One final—and crucial—consideration in the open office debate involves its disproportionate impact on women. As we noted, many employees complain about a feeling of exposure and a lack of privacy under open floor plans. For men in the workplace, that feeling can be irritating and demoralizing. For many women, however, it can be downright threatening.
The rise of the #metoo movement has made it clear that employers can no longer be complacent about maintaining a hostile environment for women. If American companies don’t take seriously the demands of their female employees, they will drive away substantial numbers of their talent and be scrutinized for their participation in a culture that makes women feel unwelcome and unsafe.
Talent Retention and The Way Forward from Open Office Designs
What the open office concept got right, at least in spirit, was the central importance of talent in the workplace. A company’s people are its most crucial resource, and if its people are unhappy, they will leave for better opportunities. In many cases, that means better workplaces.
Despite conventional wisdom, the evidence is building that employees aren’t happy in open offices. If employers want to stay competitive, they need to find solutions. Fortunately, recent years have a seen a great amount of innovation in workplace design, and new philosophies are emerging that have begun to address the drawbacks of the open office while maintaining its spirit of collaboration, flexibility, and employee morale. Below are some approaches that have begun to gain traction.
Agile Work Environments
Agile working allows employees to choose from a variety of work settings depending on what they feel will best suit the task at hand. They may choose to finish up a lengthy report at a traditional desk, conduct a group project at a collaborative bench, or hold a brainstorming session in a breakout space, to name just a few options.
Many employees enjoy a sense of autonomy in an agile work environment, where they have the ability to choose the workspace that suits their needs, and privacy is always an option. It does have its challenges, however. The system only works if it’s implemented office-wide, so staff who prefer a more structured office setting cannot opt out. For this reason, it requires an entire culture shift in companies that are moving away from an open office or traditional floor plan.
Activity Based Workspaces
Activity based workspaces are offices in which different spaces are set up to accommodate different tasks. They work well in agile work settings, as well as in team-based work environments, where teams use or “own” workspaces that meet their needs. Desks and workbenches facilitate individual or collaborative productivity; group spaces, such as huddle rooms or breakout areas, can host closed meetings or laid-back pitch sessions; phone booths can lend some privacy and focus to a client call.
Like the agile work concept they are meant to support, activity based workspaces can increase productivity and employee autonomy. However, they are not necessarily suitable for every job role. The most successful activity based workspaces will be designed with careful consideration for the needs of their employees.
Also known as “hot-desking”, unassigned seating is another rising trend in contemporary offices. Under this plan, staff are not given permanent desks or work areas, but rather workstations are available on a first-come first-served basis. This scheme can provide similar flexibility to an agile or activity based workspace (and can be combined with both), while also optimizing space and promoting a clean-desk environment. It works best in offices where staff frequently work remotely. However, it can also be frustrating to employees who require a certain amount of routine and ownership over their work environment.
Furniture Solutions to Office Workspace Demands
As more companies and employees turn against the open office trend, it has become clear that there is no single solution to modern office design. Rather, every given company requires just the right kind of flexible workspace that will fit its needs. Below are some options that your furniture dealer can provide to get the most out of your office.
- Collaborative Workspaces
Even as the one-size-fits-all open office plan potentially falls out of fashion, most companies still require spaces that will facilitate open communication and collaboration. These spaces can be dedicated or flexible—a team that routinely works collaboratively may “own” a workbench where its employees work alongside each other, whereas conference rooms or breakout areas may be available to other teams as they need them.
- Getaway Spaces
As we’ve noted, one of the biggest problems with the open office is a lack of privacy. Even in collaborative settings, it’s important for employees to be able to work privately and without distractions. We recommend that all offices have a suitable balance of “getaway” spaces, such as huddle rooms for private conferencing, independent workstations, and phone booths.
- Hybrid Workstations
An increasingly popular option that can accommodate a range of demands and preferences, hybrid workstations can go a long way to increase office flexibility. Dynamic workstations can accommodate multiple people or tasks as the workflow requires, and can be arranged and rearranged quickly to facilitate multiple needs.
These options and more can be applied in almost limitless combinations to maximize the flexibility and productivity of an office. You should work with your furniture dealer to decide just what kinds of workstations are appropriate for your company and its needs.
The open office floor plan rose quickly to prominence, but its day seems to be coming to an end. Companies are finding that the plan, which was developed to increase collaboration, actually has a tendency to stifle productivity and make employees unhappy. If companies want to stay competitive and retain top talent, they’ll need to find better, more flexible options in office design. As the decline of open office shows, there is no single solution to this challenge, but by working closely with a furniture dealer, companies can find just the right balance of collaborative, private, and dynamic workspaces to keep their people happy and productive.