What is an open office?
An open office is one with large open spaces where people work. There aren’t walls or doors, and even cubicles with partitions may be rare in these areas.
Typically, the open part of the office is for the general workforce, collaborative meeting spaces and breakrooms. It may be surrounded by or near closed working spaces meant for private meetings. In some cases, leadership has offices around or near the open spaces; in others, managers and even CEOs use desks in the open concept itself.
Why are open offices popular?
Open office spaces started around the 1960s. They were intended as a way to bring more collaboration and communication to the workplace. Original designers wanted to remove the barriers between various departments and levels of a company.
While these concepts have been around for decades, one of the reasons they became so popular this century is because of wide-spread adoption in various technical fields. Open offices were especially popular with businesses such as Google, and news and lifestyle stories covered what it was like working in these spaces.
Seeing the success of these companies and attributing it—at least in part—to open office concepts, many other businesses adopted the floor plans too.
Pros of open offices
The biggest reason companies give for choosing open office spaces is interaction and collaboration. The goal, they say, is to encourage more team collaboration by making it as easy as possible for employees to reach out to each other. Whether or not this actually occurs is up for debate, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other advantages to these floor plans.
Some common pros of open offices not related to collaboration include:
- Transparency. When employees of all levels are out in the open, it creates a level of transparency that simply isn’t possible with walls. Everyone can see what’s going on, who is meeting and whether or not other people are working. This can make it more likely that each team member appropriately attends to his or her job.
- Flexibility. True open office concepts typically don’t lock you down to specific seating arrangements or assignments. You may have work areas people can claim as they come in for the day or modular furniture that’s easy to rearrange to meet your needs. This flexibility can be a boon to companies that are growing or teams that aren’t always all in the office at the same time.
- Cost savings. It’s generally less expensive to outfit one large work area with interchangeable furniture than it is to decorate and furnish numerous office spaces. Open offices are fairly popular with start-ups because of this.
Where should a manager sit in an open plan office?
Another potential benefit of open office spaces is that it can level the playing field between workers and management. While companies can opt to have management sit in offices away from the open area, many have supervisors and other leadership sit within the open space. It sends a message that all staff is equally valued.
Cons of open offices
At the same time, open offices don’t do much for privacy, which can be problematic when dealing with HR issues, sensitive data or discussions the entire team doesn’t need hear. Because of this drawback, many companies choose to have leadership work in offices. At the very least, open office work spaces typically have shared private rooms where these types of discussions can take place.
But privacy issues aren’t specific to leadership. Around 30% of employees say the lack of privacy causes them to hold back when speaking on the phone or to other colleagues. This means employees in shared workspaces may not communicate their full concerns or feedback.
Other disadvantages of open offices can include:
- Distractions. With everything visible around employees, it can be easy for people to get distracted. That can reduce employee productivity, even in well-designed shared spaces that mitigate noise issues. In one survey about open office spaces, a whopping 99% of participants said they got distracted easily because of their environment. Around half said that the noise around them impeded their ability to deal with phone calls or focus.
- Reduced communication. Despite the purpose of these layouts, open office spaces often reduce interaction between employees. A review of data through the years found that face-to-face interactions dropped by 70% when companies switched to these floor plans. One theory is that workers in shared spaces create a sort of “fourth wall” that everyone else respects, causing them to interact less.
- Reduced productivity. On top of distractions, open offices can reduce employee productivity because workers are less satisfied with their jobs or company culture. Many people simply don’t want to handle work while everyone else is working and talking around them.
- Potential for increased illness. Without walls to provide barriers, germs may move more freely through the work place. And in a truly open office, where people are sharing desks, chairs, equipment and meeting spaces constantly, germs may spread easier by touch too. Studies have previously suggested that open working spaces lead to more sick-time absences, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are even more sensitive to this type of downside.
Do employees like open offices?
No, in general, most people are not super fans. In a 2019 survey from Gensler Research, only around 7% of people said a totally open office was their ideal working environment and around 28% said they liked open spaces with private options when necessary or for certain roles.
Almost 40% said that they wanted mostly private or completely private working environments, while around 25% said shared spaces that accommodated a small teams of 3-6 people were their preferred office environment.
How to decide if an open office concept is right for your business
Whether or not an open office concept is right for your business requires some thought. It’s not enough that some big tech companies or others have made these office layouts work—you have to decide whether it will serve you and your employees well.
Here are some questions you might ask to determine if open office concepts are right for you, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- What type of work do you do? Banking, health care or finances may not be industries that lend well to open offices because the bulk of work may be sensitive or confidential. Work that creates a lot of noise or other distractions may also be inappropriate for these layouts.
- How many employees do you have? A couple dozen employees might be viable in a shared workspace, but a couple hundred team members in the same open area could be harder to manage.
- What are the preferences and needs of your team? Sure, you don’t run a democracy. But asking team members what their needs are can be a good way to ensure your office serves most employees well and doesn’t contribute to poor morale.
- Do you have a remote work-force? If you’ve adopted a mostly remote work policy—due to COVID-19 or not—you may only need space for people to meet when face-to-face interaction is required or a few work stations for people who need to complete tasks they can’t do away from the office. In this case, a carefully managed and cleaned open office might serve your needs.
- What are your plans for growth? If you’re scaling up quickly or know that you’ll need to bring in seasonal employees, a space full of private offices that works for you right now may not be ideal in the future. An open office with room to grow and rearrange may be a better investment.
As you can see, whether or not open offices are right for you—or even whether they’re a good idea at all—doesn’t have an easy answer. Love them or hate them, though, open offices are an option and one that many businesses may choose for economic or flexibility reasons. If you’re considering an open office concept, do your research and find out what your employees think before you make the final call.