The Pros and Cons of an Open Office
It goes without saying that the best-designed offices will be the most productive, and companies have long strived to create working spaces that maximize output through employee collaboration. It has become increasingly popular for organisations to do away with traditional set-ups – where offices are private, closed off domains – instead favoring an open-plan design, in an effort to encourage more dynamic working relationships and increase productivity in the workplace.
In fact, according to the International Management Facility Association, nearly three-quarters of American employees now work in open-plan offices.
However, the subject is a contentious one, with research suggesting that productivity may in fact be diminished by such an open space. Below we discuss some of the many pros and cons of going open-plan:
Cheaper: one of the main driving factors in favor of the transition is how economical it is. The large space allows for much more flexibility, so companies can grow and accommodate new employees without needing to move, and of course there is the obvious reduction in utilities that comes with using a large room as opposed to lots of individual spaces. A good way to define the space you require is to use an office space calculator found online.
Communication and collaboration: the main idea behind this office design, is that the dynamic is sociable, fostering more interaction between employees and enabling them to communicate and work together. This means they are better able to support each other and work more independently from the management team, as well as building an environment that lends itself to the creation of more collaborative, creative ideas.
Supervision: one, open room is far easier to supervise than cubicles or individual offices. Managers can monitor employees’ whereabouts and activity, ensuring that time is spent in the most productive and efficient way.
Noise: all too often what can make the open plan design so very good can also make it very bad. Interaction between colleagues fosters friendships and communicative and dynamic relationships certainly, but it can also be distracting and make communication convoluted. Studies show that many employees report being distracted in an open office, and feel unable to work as productively as they do in their own, private space, citing noise and temperature as the most influential factors. As Julian Treasure, chairman of the Sound Agency, points out: “Nobody can understand two people talking at the same time”.
Alexi Marmot, an architect and professor at UCL University College London, also references noise as an issue in offices of this nature. Conversely, however, she focuses on a lack of noise as possibly impeding productivity: “A lot of open-plan offices are just rows of people only working at their computers. And people don’t want to be there.” The open nature of this office causes some employees to become inhibited, affecting their productivity in an altogether different way: they are less confident, and less likely to want to engage or have an input into the conversations.
Supervision: there is also a sense of paranoia in open office environments; employees resent being monitored, and feel as though they aren’t trusted, which does not lend itself to a productive atmosphere.
Sickness: always a problem in any office environment, the large spaces filled with lots of people are a breeding ground for diseases and bacteria, and once one employee is ill, everyone else is more exposed than ever. A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health found that open office setups reported 62% more sick days on average than one-occupant layouts.
So the pros and cons to this type of office are numerous, and it seems that they very much depend on the sector of the market the office is in. A sociable, boisterous, collaborative environment is perfect for sales teams or companies where competition is a driving force behind their success, however not as suited to an organisation where quiet, more meditative work is required.
Moreover, age does seem to be a factor here: in one study, participants over 45 reported feeling more dissatisfied and unproductive in a noisier, open-plan environment.
So what now? Are you a company looking to navigate a move to an open-plan office layout? Perhaps you’re an employee struggling to work productively?
Here are a few tips for how to make an open office environment work successfully for you:
When implementing large changes in a company, it is vital that employees are given sufficient support and guidance to be able to transition easily, and with as little cost to productivity as possible. Communicate with the team beforehand, discuss their concerns, and see what strategies can be introduced to ensure everyone is comfortable with the changes.
Perhaps creating designated quieter spaces or rooms, where employees can go if they wish to conduct a conversation in private or simply take a break from the noisy atmosphere for a bit.
Many companies supply their employees with earphones as a way of helping them create a personal space within the open-plan environment.
Foster a sociable open-plan space by not giving every employee their own printer, or putting the printers and other office machinery in another part of the room, so employees must get up and walk around, and interact with each other as they work.
The Guardian explains how some companies have employed even more innovative strategies to make open-plan design work for them. Professor Cary Cooper, an expert on occupational stress from Lancaster University, suggests using signs as a solution the issue that some employees feel they can never find a quite moment or space to themselves, and that this might – in turn – hinder productivity and output: “Make it common knowledge that, if you fly a red flag above your desk, it means you are working on something detailed and need peace and quiet,” he says. “A white flag means that you are available.”
There is an enormous array of factors that influence and contribute to office design, and with such varying needs and preferences between individual employees, it is difficult to settle on a particular model to best achieve maximum productivity for a company. However, communicating with employees, and being sensitive to individual needs and working requirements, will ensure that an open-plan office environment is the stimulating, productive and fulfilling place it should be.