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When asked what their ideal office space would look like, many people describe a large spacious layout with floor to ceiling windows and a great scenic view (I have a personal preference for the Toronto skyline and Lake Ontario views). Others would describe a quaint office space just for them or with only a few select team members.
With large open offices being a popular current design in workspaces, you might consider using a similar plan for your next office redesign. There are many positives cited for open offices: everyone can easily interact, the office looks bigger, and more natural light can enter. But before deciding on the final layout of a new office, it is wise to consider first the pros and cons of open offices. The workplace is created so people can work in an environment where they can feel productive, motivated, safe, and get their tasks done. This is why determining the benefits and considering other factors in creating the office layout is crucial.
In an open office, workstations are placed together rather than in private offices or cubicles. What are the benefits of such a layout for workers?
If you foster open offices that create an area for staff to work in, this can benefit you and the employees in the workspace. Opportunities to network are often fostered significantly in open offices, for full time employees, and also for freelancers who rent office space with open-area workstations. . Open designs provide the opportunity to easily communicate and share thoughts and creativity, making it beneficial to the working environment.
A functional workspace is effective when you can quickly adapt the space to meet the needs of employees. Businesses continuously grow, and this includes the number of staff who will be joining the office. An open office does not need to commit to a single layout. You can change the designs of your workstations depending on the number of people who start working in them.
Having an open office helps may save businesses money more than having cubicles or private offices, especially if you are already starting with an open space (new buildings or complete renos come to mind here). There may be times that there are a lot of employees present in the office, especially with the many work from home options that most companies now offer. In a closed space, it may not be easy to have every person have their own private space to do their work. This can lead to building more cubicles and purchasing more desks, chairs, and other equipment to settle in.
Open offices, on the other hand, are flexible and can easily have space for new employees to settle with less expense in making extra cubicles or expanding the office area. One can also spend less on other equipment most employees use in the office, such as printers, fax machines, or scanners.
Open floor plans may be a popular office design, but it is not for everyone. What are the disadvantages?
1. Lack of face-to-face interactions
You might be surprised that open offices don't help with most interactions. According to an HBR study, firms that switched to open offices decreased face-to-face interactions by 70%. People lean more toward technology when it comes to interactions. Zoom calls, Slack, and other means of online communication are what workers use more than typical face-to-face meetings.
A term called the fourth wall is becoming more well known in open offices. This is where people create imaginary barriers where they can separate themselves from their surroundings. One of many examples of employees practicing fourth walls is when people see co-workers immersed in their tasks, they wouldn't usually interrupt. Somewhat surprisingly (or maybe not if you have already worked in an open workspace), people feel more comfortable walking into somebody’s personal office to talk to them than approaching somebody busy working in a shared space.
A well-known drawback of having open workstations are the number of distractions present. Working together in a single area makes it easier to get distracted by the conversations some employees may be having in the corner of the office, a worker on the phone, or even some of your co-worker's habits that can distract you from work (Jim who constantly talks about how great Donald Trump comes to mind)
In a workplace distraction report, 80% of workers stated that noisy and chatty co-workers and other office noises are the biggest distractions. Employees may need to innovate ways to drown out the noises to stay focused.
3. Lack of Privacy
Those who prefer cubicles than open offices decide to have their own space due to privacy. With teams and employees working side-by-side, there may be little to no privacy at all in open workstations. While the lack of this may help you stay focused on the task, it can still have its downsides. Keep in mind the type of workers you have in your office, like introverts and extroverts. Introverts may find open offices intimidating and stressful, while extroverts, although outgoing, wouldn't prefer being watched all the time.
In addition, open offices may give off the feeling that you're constantly being monitored. A study called "The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Control" shows that workers' productivity slowed down when their manager was watching, and productivity increased when they were unsupervised.
4. Stress and Anxiety
With the lack of privacy and more ways to get distracted, it’s no surprise that having an open office could cause more stress to employees. With the other disadvantages listed in having open workstations and the constant "need" to be seen as busy, it can be stressful when getting anything done. Workers may multitask even more to look more productive (even when they aren’t), leading to additional stress and frustration. It can even make them paranoid, as if someone is always watching them over their shoulder.
Open offices can even cause age barriers. Older workers are more likely to have anxiety, digestive issues, and even cardiac problems when stressed; and this could distract other nearby employees also…
5. Germs and Bacteria
With the recent COVID pandemic, we must of course, address this issue also. Without walls or cubicles, everyone breathes the same air. An employee's common cold can quickly spread to many people working in that open office. In a worst case scenario (again, think of COVID, or the next pandemic) entire teams could get sick and take multiple days off (possibly at the same time), stalling work progress and causing health hazards in the office.
In addition, a study conducted on 2,000 workers showed that if more than six people are present in an open office, they take 62% more sick days compared to workers in closed offices. This is a HUGE consideration that could have significant financial repercussions.
As much as open spaces could increase collaboration and productivity, some factors may not align with this goal. Understanding that proximity matters helps you see which areas in your office you can provide for collaborative work. Is it necessary for the entire office to be open? Or should there be areas specifically for an open office layout for some staff?
With open offices promoting more interaction, keep in mind your workers' comfort and safety. Creating hybrid office spaces may be a better approach to providing teamwork and individual tasks.
Having layouts in mind, changing office furniture can impact a more productive and safe working environment. Investing in ergonomic chairs and standing desks can promote a healthy office, in addition to helping your employees collaborate and work independently.
Knowing the pros and cons of open offices, it is best to understand that no single layout will always be ideal. Focusing on creating a hybrid workspace with both open areas and individual desks can help your employees to work better, using both spaces as circumstances require. More interactions do not necessarily mean a better or more efficient workspace; each office will be different. Understanding these factors and your staff needs will allow you to create a rich, healthy, and safe office layout where interactions and space are balanced.