After years of the all-gray cubicle life being lampooned as dull and soul-sucking, companies understandably pivoted to a model that promised to feel more modern, more exciting, and more egalitarian: the open office plan.
These offices got rid of cubicle walls and private offices. They created sunny, open spaces where all employees could feel like they were in the middle of the action.
This type of office plan quickly skyrocketed in popularity. However, employees soon began to resent some of the downsides that came along with the lack of private space.
These days, though, savvy office designers can embrace the best perks of an open office environment while still giving workers the privacy they need.
The Benefits of Open Offices
Open office plans generally often have a more spacious and airy feel than traditional office. This this can have significant benefits for employees.
As we wrote in our post on how to design your office for more productivity, higher ceilings (at least 10 feet) are associated with thinking more freely. According to this FastCompany article, researchers found that “high ceilings seemed to put test participants in a mindset of freedom, creativity, and abstraction, whereas the lower ceilings prompting more confined thinking.”
Another productivity booster found in open office plans is natural light. Open office spaces tend to make the most of office windows because they’re not blocked with partitions or office walls.
Sunlight is a proven mood booster, so it can make people happier and more productive at work. Studies have even shown that working near a window can even help employees sleep better at night, increasing the odds they’ll arrive to work the next day refreshed and energized.
Finally, abolishing the traditional office hierarchy where higher-ups get more office space, more windows, and better real estate (think “the corner office”) sends a clear message about culture. In open floor plans, employees of all levels and departments usually work together in the same area. That clarifies that every employee’s contributions are important and that top company leaders are accessible to the rest of the staff.
The Drawbacks of Open Offices and How to Fix Them
Despite the significant perks of the open office concept, the downsides are significant, too. Open offices can actually make it harder for employees get work done, for the following reasons.
It turns out that the airy feel of the open spaces and high ceilings that can inspire visually may not inspire acoustically.
The walls, floor coverings, and dropped ceilings the would have absorbed noise in a traditional office are now gone, creating a noise level that can make it difficult to concentrate.
As this Work Design article points out:
“The hard surfaces of exposed ceilings – and the cement floors and glass walls they’re often coupled with – create an echo chamber. And, as people raise their voices louder to be heard over the ambient noise, the noise is amplified.”
No one likes the din of a too-loud workspace. But as this Buildings article notes, a little-too-loud office is often better than a little-too-quiet, where something as simple as a sneeze or a phone notification can turn everyone’s heads.
It is possible to maintain a lofty, airy feel in your office without reverting to carpets and dropped ceilings. Try hanging stylish, sound-absorbing panels from the ceiling and covering over other hard surfaces to keep the sound from bouncing. Another option is to add soundproof phone booths for employees who need to make phone calls.
Finally, some offices add glass walls to cut down on noise and allow employees to have private meetings. The glass stops noise but not light, preserving the airy and open feel in the office.
Lack of Privacy
As this Harvard Business Review article points out, there’s a natural rhythm to collaboration.
Employees generally need to work alone or in pairs to generate ideas or process information. Then, they come together with others to build on their ideas, get feedback, or find consensus. They then work alone to process the new information, and the cycle continues. Particularly difficult or complex issues require even more time for individuals to think and recharge.
And due to today’s digitally driven, always-connected world, workers feel obligated to be on-call constantly for work. This could make the need to escape even more important.
Private time can be difficult to get in open workplaces, where there are few secluded areas for employees to recharge.
There are several way to give employees the space they need to think without resurrecting traditional office walls.
The first option is to design breakout spaces or designated quiet areas where employees can go when they need to work quietly. These can be rooms with walls, located on the inside of the office instead of around the perimeter to facilitate the flow of natural light from the windows. Breakout spaces can also be designed using partitions, plants, and furniture that preserve the open feel.
Another idea that provides quiet time as well as physical health is to provide a walking path where employees can get their blood flowing and think as they stroll.
“Activity based design” designs offices around employees’ alternating needs for privacy, for meetings, and for small breakout sessions. Some of these offices even employ the use of apps to assign workspaces based on employee preferences.
Lack of Collaboration
Of course, one of the main drivers behind any open work space is that if employees are working in a common area instead of squirreled away in different wings of a building, they will be more likely to interact and collaborate.
Unfortunately, some data shows that an open office environment makes workers less likely to communicate in person.
Quoted in Slate, the authors of one study speculated that “in an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones) while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”
They may be discouraged from going up to another colleague they see working nearby, because their conversation will be held in front of a significant audience of other employees. It may seem easier in those cases to simply send an email or message on chat.
Designing flexible breakout spaces is ideal for impromptu meetings and can give workers the space they need to step away to get a little more privacy for their conversations.
Other offices invest in spaces within the office designed for fun and casual socialization. Spaces like ping-pong tables and fitness centers can encourage a more casual and impromptu type of interaction.
However, all of the breakout spaces and social spaces in the world won’t help if the workplace culture believes that “productivity” and “collaboration” are synonymous with everyone working together and talking at once.Workplace leaders should signal with their words, attitudes, and actions that employees are encouraged to work in solitude when necessary. Click To Tweet This will pave the way for a more productive office.
Of course, even private workspaces and a privacy-positive workplace culture won’t fix one of the most common disruptions to employees: office visitors. Without a good system in place to greet visitors and check them in properly, they’ll wander into the office and ask for help from the first person they see.
At The Receptionist, we call this “Person Nearest the Door Syndrome.”
If you’re interested in getting rid of PND syndrome at your office, we invite you to try The Receptionist. Our simple, standalone self-check-in kiosk makes it easy for visitors to check themselves in without interrupting anyone.
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