By Dan Joyce
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.
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 eliminates 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.
Open spaces allow air and light into the environment, putting people at ease.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.