By Reagan Nickl
Enterprise Customer Success Senior Manager
Open office spaces are a hotly debated topic in the realm of workplace modernization. Tearing down cubicle walls and moving people out of individual offices has become the fad many businesses credit for success. There’s an emphasis on community, collaboration, and inclusion. The idea is that by tearing down walls and bringing people together, a business will run more efficiently and cohesively.
But is an open workplace everything it’s cracked up to be? Is an open workplace an advantage or disadvantage? Communal work environments have seen as much backlash as praise, labeled as everything from inefficient and inconvenient, to awful and disastrous for workers. Opponents to open office design claim people need privacy and a degree of seclusion in order to do their best work.
If your business is contemplating open office productivity or the shift to a more community-oriented working environment, it’s easy to be confused. At SpaceIQ, we study workplaces extensively to better understand them—including open-office floor plans. Here’s everything you need to know about open office concept pros and cons, and when this workplace style may benefit your business versus hinder it.
What is open workspace?
To understand the pros and cons of an open office, we first need to understand: What is an open office layout?
An open office layout emphasizes a communal work environment, favoring shared workspaces rather than segregated offices. It’s an egalitarian concept that’s meant to foster better communication, culture, and trust. Open offices are usually comprised of desk clumps, workstations, or desk neighborhoods—all congregated in a central area to brings all business operations together.
Where did open office concepts come from?
Despite their significance in the modern office environment, open-concept floor plans actually have roots going back to the 1950s and earlier. The open office space was once the layout of choice for large groups of typists and technicians charged with performing repetitive tasks. Pioneers like industrialist Henry Ford and engineer Frank Taylor saw the open office floor plan as efficient, easy to manage, and socially democratic for workers.
As workforces became more specialized and segmented over time, the need for departments and offices became more pronounced. Walls started going up to separate different facets of business. And, by the early 1990s, business was siloed to make it easier to manage on a day-to-day basis.
But with the formation of more agile companies in the late 1990s and early 2000s, open floor plans started to make more of a comeback. Startups with small teams and less office space readopted the open-concept workplace, which allowed them to collaborate more efficiently. As these startups boomed, many established businesses began to copy them—starting with their workplace designs. Today, the open office is in full swing!
Why are open plan offices good?
Open plan offices have some inherent benefits that make them appealing right from the get-go. For starters, they offer modern appeal. Getting people out of offices and into a communal workplace—complete with supporting open-concept architecture—is distinctly modern. Having desk pods, workgroups, or hot desks scattered throughout a chief working area brings modern appeal to a workplace.
But beyond the aesthetic, open concept offices facilitate great communication amongst employees. This is perhaps the most important benefit of open floor plans. Anyone you may need to talk or collaborate with is just a short walk away. Employees can see one another, which often prompts them to think about working as a team or reminds them to engage their coworkers on matters that affect the company.
Communication itself is also easier. Rather than sending emails or instant messages, which can be distracting and interruptive, workers can have a much shorter conversation face-to-face. This level of interpersonal communication minimizes misunderstandings and creates bonds between workers, improving cohesion and building trust.
Leveling the playing field
Open offices have the added benefit of putting all workers on a level playing field, regardless of job type or position. Employees at the same level across departments—such as a junior graphic designer and a junior sales representative—occupy the same space. This shows that no single part of the company’s operations is any more important than the other. It subtly bolsters company culture through inclusion.
Sitting superiors with subordinates also creates an egalitarian feel. Open offices take managers out of their secluded areas and integrates them with the workers they oversee. Not only does this humanize superiors, it improves accountability, relatability, and trust. No longer are managers sitting in an ivory tower—they’re right there in the trenches with the troops.
Better using available space
In a more practical and cost-oriented sense, open concept offices offer a great opportunity to do more with less. As mentioned, startups with lesser means found success using open workplaces to their fullest. Instead of trying to fit a few secluded offices into a space, businesses can maximize occupancy of that space by tearing down walls.
Walls are confining and, as a result, they make people feel like they need more space. Consider this idea: A walled-in office that’s 150 sq/ft can be replaced with an open-concept desk pod taking up 125 sq/ft. Moreover, offices generally house single employees—managers, specialists, etc. However, open concept spaces of the same size may ideally house two or more employees.
These small concessions add up, eventually culminating in more available space for more employees. Add the cost of a lease on top of this and it’s evident that the cost-per-head of your workforce drops as well.
Exploring agile capabilities
Modern business environments are fast-moving and constantly buzzing. A modern workforce needs to be able to act and react just as fast. Open office floor plans are a great enabler of agility and can be hugely beneficial to companies that demand dexterity. Whether it’s mobilizing on a major project or coming together to collaborate quickly, open workplaces literally knock down barriers to action.
What’s bad about an open office?
Many of the variables that make open office spaces great are the same reasons companies avoid them. Specifically, eliminating private workspaces in favor of a more communal environment has drawn criticism from companies believing it stunts productivity and hinders meaningful communication. There are concerns that shifting too far away from individualism toward community leaves workers feeling lost in the mix and uninspired to do their best work.
The biggest criticism of open office spaces is the never-ending assortment of stimuli workers must contend with. It’s hard to concentrate when phones are ringing, people are talking, computers are whirring, and people are moving. The inability to close oneself off from these many stimuli can result in wandering attention, poor work quality and lack of motivation, among other problems.
The opposition to open office spaces claims that some level of seclusion is necessary for workers to focus in on their tasks and do a good job, interruption-free. This just isn’t possible in an open office where every sense is being stimulated at all times.
Workers need some degree of privacy to feel welcome and at home in the workplace. Unfortunately, open offices eliminate a majority of privacy in favor of improving interpersonal communication. Employees can’t have a private conversation at their desk or answer a sensitive email without others walking by. This lack of privacy leads many workers to feel like they’re always exposed and under a microscope, and that creates tension and anxiety.
There’s also the problem of spatial ownership in an open office. Workers may feel like their privacy is being impeded simply because of proximity to others. Having to share a desk can feel intrusive or trying to converse with someone in the presence of uninvolved co-workers can be awkward.
The spread of illness
Workplaces are already responsible for widespread illness during peak cold and flu seasons. Grouping everyone together in one open space may intensify the rate at which germs and illnesses sweep through an office. A simple sneeze or an exchange of office supplies in a communal area can be all it takes to introduce an illness to the majority of your workforce in one fell swoop.
Dissenters and introverts
Personality plays a pivotal role in how a person functions within their workplace. For personality types that aren’t compatible with large groups, forcing them into a communal workspace can be toxic for your workforce in general.
Dissenters, for example, may freely voice their displeasure about projects or expectations, without regard for other workers’ feelings. This can cause rifts between employees who may see this as boisterous or brash. With no individual offices or workspaces to retreat to, the majority of workers are left put-off by a select few they can’t escape in an open environment.
Introverts also falter in open concept offices because they prefer seclusion to community. For these individuals, social burnout is real—whether in the form of lethargy, anxiety, or frustration. With no place to call their own, their work may suffer and their role within your workplace culture could slide into decline.
Is an open office right for your business?
As with most aspects of workplace customization, deciding on an open office floor plan comes down to the unique nature of your business. Is it a small business that needs to be agile and comprised of social employees who enjoy collaboration? Or, are you a larger, more diverse company with concerns about individual worker productivity and the ability to afford a larger office space?
Chance are, your business will see both pros and cons in an open office floor plan. It’s important to take stock of both to make a decision that ultimately benefits your workforce over the long-term. Take stock of current facility challenges or obstacles, as well as the traits, needs, and wants of your workforce. As you understand the pros and cons of an open office space, the advantage or disadvantage of transitioning to one will become clear.
Looking for hard data to guide your decision about an open office? Use SpaceIQ’s robust platform to gain insights and understanding about your current floor plan, cost-per-head, operational efficiency, and more.