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Pros and cons of an open office

Posted by Natalie Runnerstrom on 6/17/19 9:20 PM

Open offices can come in many different shapes and sizes. If you don't like your current arrangement, there are plenty of ways to fix that! But at the end of the day, an open office may just not be for you. Let's take a look at the ups and downs of this increasingly popular office design. 

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After a few years of popularity, there's been some backlash to the open office phenomenon. It can be hard to tell if you're supposed to love it or hate it, but as with most things, your mileage may vary! An open office can be great for some companies and a nightmare for others. What do you need to consider if you've been thinking about taking the leap?

Noise.

Just like there are different ways to learn, there are different ways to work. While some people are barely bothered by surrounding sounds and may even be soothed by them, others are left having to put on headphones to avoid being distracted by every little noise.

Open offices came to be so popular because of the science behind them — like bee hives, open offices were meant to increase human interaction, creating a more productive ecosystem that's built on collaboration and innovation. But does that actually happen?

Studies have shown that staff members actually have fewer conversations face-to-face and are turning to instant messaging more and more. This could be due to the distractions that come with in-person chatter, but it could also be due to a sense of privacy in the office.

Two PBS employees seem to work at two completely different offices under the same roof! One is on edge about hearing any nearby conversation because the littlest sound is distracting. At the same time, this employee's peer seems to go about her day unphased by anything happening around her. Why is that?

Privacy.

The key to the PBS article is the two desks' locations: The author's is right in the middle of the office facing other employees, while their coworker's desk faces a window. While the window-facing employee is still part of the open office style, she's slightly removed from immediate distractions.

Comfortability also becomes a factor when you have less privacy. Although you may have a free-flowing management style that doesn't leave people feeling micromanaged, employees might feel uncomfortable with how visible their screens are. Employees may fear taking a break because someone near them may judge them for not working, or report them to management. 

These are just some of the ways privacy, or lack thereof, can hinder someone's productivity in the office. The idea behind tearing down walls is creating a sense of community, which can increase workplace satisfaction and collaboration. While this is true, it all hinges on how that community is set up. 

Design.

Design is an huge contributor to the success of your open office. A lot of problems people have with open offices can be found in the design, including the two mentioned above. For example, if you have a bunch of long tables in the middle of a room with a few common spaces spread around, people might not be able to focus. 

On the other hand, providing individual desks strategically arranged around the office with equal access to light (it's pretty important for productivity) could create just the environment you're looking for. You could use long tables in the middle for breaks, lunches, collaboration, or for just a different setting. 

Using the right designs can also lower the overall noise in your space. Constructing team-based areas, where people who need to collaborate are near each other, will reduce the need to talk over others. Maybe add call rooms for your sales team so they're able to get comfortable and really dial-in without feeling watched by surrounding employees, and the other way around.

The benefits.

The benefit of an open office is a lower operating cost for companies, which means more money can go back to the employee. You could be offering more competitive salaries, better office perks, nicer equipment, or more team outings because of the reduced cost.

Having people work more closely together can decrease the amount of instant message-based conversations. This can also foster a more trusting environment, making it easier for your employees to quickly solve an issue by simply walking up to another person and having a chat. Removing the walls in your office make it easier to implement any necessary changes, creating a space that bring people comfort and collaboration. When you master that, your employees will get excited to show up to your office, to start a new project, and to be part of a growing team.

There isn't any one, single way to go about creating an open office! Check in with your employees to see how your current design is working for them, ask for how any problems can be resolved, and work to fix them. By keeping your team in the loop, you're actually using an open office as a way to increase communication and teamwork — which is the whole point!

Topics: Corporate Workplace, Workspace Design, Employee Experience