Open concept office design: Is it right for your business?

I happened upon an interesting debate recently on an issue I deal with regularly: Open Concept Office  vs. Standard Office. “Open concept” refers to an open floor plan with no or only partial partitions between employees. A “Standard Office” has individual offices for most employees, with one exception being the reception area.

In fact, two employees of Fast Company Magazine have written on both sides of the argument with particular hilarity and wit. While one argues an open office layout has more advantages and merely requires additional planning, the other commentator complains that an open office renders sustained concentration impossible.

Let’s begin by looking at the Pro Open Concept Office design argument. I would also love to hear your experiences.

In no particular order, reasons for an open concept office include:

Less email: If you are on a different side of the office from your co-worker, you are more likely to send them an email, rather than talking to them in real life. This increases the number of emails for employees to get through, affecting productivity, increasing the chance that what you typed may not be interpreted correctly and creates a constant electronic nudge that screams, “Attention!” each time you receive a new message.

Less intimidation: Offices have doors and not everyone operates on an “open door policy.” It is intimidating for many employees, especially introverts, to knock on a boss’s door. An open concept office design eliminates these barriers.

Productivity: If your team is positioned together and the team you work in tandem with (sales and customer service for example) need to interact, an open concept office design can work to foster communication between the “right” teams.

Less Noise: Some, like Anjali Mullany at Fast Company in her article, have argued that cubes or offices, create a false sense of privacy. Many people are quieter with an open office design. This phenomenon is called the “library effect.”

Other arguments in favor an open office design are: fairness, transparency, and cost savings.

Fairness: This refers to the idea that hierarchical determinations of who is deserving of an office matter little when there are no offices to occupy.

Transparency: Ever wondered what Stu in IT does all day with his door closed? Wonder no more, he’s right next to you, either coding at breakneck pace, or surfing Priceline for his next vacation.

Cost Savings: It doesn’t take an advanced math degree to know that less square footage is less monthly rent.

Let’s address each reason.

Less email: This may or may not occur. Many people like to have an electronic record when they discuss a work related issue, whether it’s for clarification or because they are asking for feedback. Many employees like to be able to file emails in very specific folders to be able to refer back to an issue when time begins to ebb away at their memory. If less email results, it can be argued that perhaps more “actual” work is being accomplished, rather than “more writing” about work.

Consensus: Both sides are correct.

Productivity: Another toss up here. Some people can work when the level of sound around them is amplified, such as a coffee shop with light music and espresso machine noises. Others need complete silence, given only with isolation or sound blocking headphones. If you don’t have to email, or get up and walk across the office talk to someone, you may be able to work on the task at hand without delay, and your productivity has increased.

Consensus: Both sides are correct.

Less noise: Sometimes this is the case. Consider that employees can immediately see their co-workers and loud talking or music is less likely to be tolerated since it may be met with a disapproving look. Oh the horror! However, some people never learned what an inside voice is or what kind of conversations should NOT take place in the office and their ineptitude will continue to drive you bonkers.

Consensus: I have yet to visit an open office layout that was so quiet you could hear a pin drop, but if you want that kind of quiet, perhaps working with other people just isn’t your cup of tea. Silence is an impossibility and both sides are correct.

Although I can see both sides, very Swiss of me, each client of mine knows what is best for their own office design. That’s why it’s important to brainstorm before redesigning or moving into a new office. If you have any questions, please contact me to discuss.

Next post – We’ll look at the Pro Office argument.

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