Over the past couple of decades, companies have been ditching dingy gray cubicles for wide-open floors and sometimes even shared desk space. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a successful startup or tech company without picturing an open office floor plan. In the last few years, however, this office design has come under scrutiny.
Sure, the intention is good: Open offices are meant to encourage spontaneous collaboration, bonding and productivity. And although they’ve been scientifically linked to greater employee happiness and health, this type of layout can also take a toll on employee satisfaction and productivity.
So if you’re eyeing an open office—or have one already but are reconsidering it—you should weigh these pros and cons before deciding. Because though this kind of office can save on real estate costs, it may not actually improve your bottom line if it leads to high turnover or a disgruntled, absentee staff.
The Benefits of Open Office Floor Plans
Companies favor open office floor plans for several legitimate reasons. These designs can improve employee health and morale. An open floor plan with flexible (unassigned) seating allows employees to sit where they want and move around whenever, providing an environment where coworkers are never forced to sit beside someone who frustrates or distracts them.
An open floor plan can save your company money, since you don’t have to cover the costs of individual office desks or cubical walls and you require fewer square feet overall. Walls and cubicles don’t block interactions or views of other employees, after all, which may be why businesses started removing them in the first place.
The Drawbacks of Open Designs
Though open office floor plans seemed advantageous 20 years ago, companies have since found some drawbacks with this design.
In surveying high-performing employees after implementing an open design, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that 58% desired more private space for problem-solving and 54% felt the new office environment was too distracting. Additionally, they saw a 62% increase in sick day usage among the employees surveyed and a 70% decrease in face-to-face interactions.
The takeaway: Open offices can be distracting, and when employees can’t concentrate, they may have less desire to interact and collaborate.
Sensory overload and declines in workplace productivity and job satisfaction are also risks of open office floor plans. Not all employees thrive in open workspaces—some prefer quieter, more private settings—and the design isn’t suitable for every company. When sensitive data is being shared, for instance, fewer private work areas could become problematic. Additionally, open spaces may allow more contagious illnesses to spread, which can hurt your productivity if more sick days are used at the same time.
Designing an Effective Open Office Plan
There are several ways to design an effective open office plan. You can set up quiet private rooms for employees, or place clear or solid partitions around the office to muffle loud sounds. Choose partitions that employees can pull down or up for privacy when necessary, and install sound-blocking ceilings and floors or ceiling-mounted sound traps.
Hang fabric wall decor in rooms, provide sound-dampening chairs and place rugs on hard floors to reduce distracting noises. If employees don’t have a place to store personal belongings, offer secure locker units somewhere within your open-concept workspace.
Don’t forget to make each space appear warm and inviting with access to sunlight, plants and clean, relaxing designs. Sometimes these little touches can make all the difference for employee satisfaction.
Is an Open Office Floor Plan Right for My Company?
There are several key questions to consider before implementing an open workspace design, such as:
Is regular collaboration part of the job? If so, this space might be a good fit. If not, it may just hamper workflows.
How should I accommodate employees who value privacy or work better in a quiet environment? Dedicated quiet spaces are helpful here, but consider if this will truly be enough. You may need to open up remote work possibilities to cater to these employees or position them in more secluded areas of the building.
What does my budget allow? Even if an open office sounds wonderful, developing one isn’t possible without the cash. Sometimes to get this layout you’ll need to move to a new building entirely. Crunch your numbers and see what is truly possible.
Consider utilizing surveys to determine which type of workspace most of your employees prefer or holding all-hands meetings where this is the topic of discussion. An open office design isn’t for everybody or every business, and although about 70% of companies choose them, according to SHRM, ensuring it’s what your employees really want will make a huge difference in regard to retention, satisfaction and productivity.
Looking for more ways to keep your employees engaged and productive? Consider this guidance from United Concordia Dental on managing workplace wellness.