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Pros and Cons of the Open Office

Author Jialin Ke, Pete Bacevice

Tags Insight

The open office plan has earned a bad reputation over the past decade. A quick Google search for “open office” reveals a myriad of negative stories and research studies. However, the blanket statement that “open offices don’t work,” portrays an incomplete representation of the concept. In this article, we’ll discuss some key considerations when thinking about moving to an open office plan, the pros and cons of doing so, as well as strategies to diagnose and mitigate potential problems.

3 Key Considerations:

1. Companies need a tailored open office plan that suits how the business functions.

Some jobs require a high frequency of interaction and high-reliability hand-offs of information. Trading floors, finance firms, health care organizations, and creative tech companies benefit from an open floor plan given their speed of work and communication. For example, we partnered with Ion (formerly Fidessa), a trading and investment services firm, in designing their new offices in Jersey City. Ion’s previous space was open plan but dispersed across several floors with poor connectivity between them. When we surveyed employees before the move, only 38% were satisfied with the existing space. Ion’s new space strategy reduced the number of floors and provided better vertical circulation. The workplace remained open plan, but the design provided new flexibility to re-arrange spaces to suit current needs. The new space improved the quality of interactions among groups, and overall staff satisfaction increased to 86%.

However, this open office concept does not work for everyone, such as types of jobs that prioritize concentration and privacy over frequent interaction. Higher Education faculty offices would not always benefit from an open plan, given the amount of one-on-one meetings professors and students have as well as the time spent engaged in individual work. Private environments also best support law firm employees who deal with high degrees of confidentiality and often spend long hours reading and writing briefs.

Nonetheless, even when some job functions are less suited to an open plan setting, this doesn’t have to rule out the possibility of considering one. These jobs often reside in a bigger ecosystem with other job types that would  benefit from collaboration and interaction. In that case, an open plan with plenty of private or enclosed spaces ensures that all job types have a space that works for them. Another strategy is to utilize glass to allow private offices to balance privacy with accessibility and light penetration.

There is no one-size-fits-all open plan. For a successful workplace, it is important to holistically consider the types of work that people do, and create spatial options that allow everyone to perform optimally.

2. Change management is essential to aid the transition to open office.

Even a well-designed open office can be perceived negatively if there are no protocols or communication to establish the foundation for change. A recent study of employees across five countries found that social processes, such as sharing the vision for the new office, could help employees establish a sense of place identity. Specifically, when leaders described how the space aligns with the company mission, employees felt more place attachment and understanding for how to use the new space.

In architectural design, the scope of projects is no longer limited to the constructed space but rather encompasses a comprehensive practice of end-user engagement. At HLW, the process begins with involving leaders in defining the business goals driving the design project and then progressing through a series of strategy-driven engagements. For a smooth space transition, it is best to communicate change management early and often. We partner closely with our clients to address concerns, combat rumors, and show employees how to utilize their new space. For open office success, change management matters just as much as good design.

3. Technology supports a well-planned office.

Open offices generally allow employees to be more mobile because there are more non-territorial spaces. The availability of high top tables, small huddle rooms, and phone booths are affordances that encourage people to move around their workplace and to consider various options for both scheduled and impromptu meetings. Robust technology such as wireless/”follow me” printing, laptops, meeting room booking, and ample power outlets are necessary to facilitate this kind of movement and interaction. Imagine how frustrating it would be for employees to be tethered to wires and monitors when they need to work away from their desk. Open plan success goes hand in hand with IT coordination. If the company is not ready to commit towards upgrading the technology and supporting mobility within the space, then the open office plan is not for them.

In summary, these three considerations show that open office success is dependent on space and function fit, change management, and technology support. Consider your own organization — should they shift to an open office model? As much as the answer depends on business goals and work styles, it also depends on the values and culture your organization wants to promote through workplace design. Before making a decision, you may want to consider some of the below research on open plan offices.

Open Office Benefits:

  • Equality & Fairness. Although it’s an intangible benefit, co-locating all employees into a new space allows everyone to have a fresh start. It enables a new and shared culture to flourish while leaving old behaviors behind. It also creates an opportunity for everyone to be on the same page and equally share the benefits of the new work environment.
  • Appearance & Expectations. Visitors have an expectation of what the organization will look like. Moving to an open office plan will put people and their work on display, giving guests a chance to see and feel the energy of the organization.
  • Employee Desires. The truth is that many people are choosing  open plan offices when they are looking for a space of their own. This is evident in the growth of coworking spaces around the world, which generally adopt an open plan layout. Although traditionally catered to freelancers, independent and remote workers, more companies are choosing coworking spaces because they believe that their performance will improve more rapidly in such spaces compared to a conventional office.
  • Trust & Engagement. Bringing everyone into a shared space increases awareness of one another and builds trust within the team. Trust is linked with a number of positive outcomes, including employee engagement and morale. People are more committed to their work when they are in an atmosphere of trust, reciprocity, and transparency.
  • Amenities in return for Reduced Cost. Open office models allow for real estate cost savings by decreasing the footprint of workstations and offices, as well as eliminating redundant support spaces. Beyond the obvious real estate savings, we find that companies are more motivated to reinvest some of these savings in amenities and services that help engage and retain employees long-term.

It is important to consider both the opportunities and challenges when assessing an open office layout. Understanding potential problems will help to mitigate these issues and control for them, so that workers can flourish regardless of the layout.

Open Office Challenges:

  • Lack of Privacy. The biggest fear and compliant with open office plans is lack of privacy, which manifests on two levels: information and stimulation. Information privacy has to do with whether personal information or work is visible to others, whereas stimulation privacy has to do with whether interruptions can be controlled. Open office plans will  make it harder to prevent revealing personal information, and  harder to control incoming stimulations such as a neighbor’s phone call. However, there are strategies that can mitigate these forms of privacy infringement. For both information and stimulation control, ensure there are well-placed breakout spaces, like huddle rooms and phone booths, to make personal calls or to perform focused work. Culture also plays a big role in an employee’s feeling of privacy. Often times, company culture is the true culprit behind staff’s fear of visibility, and the open plan is merely exacerbating the issue. Use dialogue to understand the cause of people’s anxieties. Then establish standards to address these issues, by defining the level of privacy necessary for different workflows or outlining what kinds of information are truly confidential.
  • Sense of Impermanence. Some employees may feel that an open plan office symbolizes a lack of permanence in their jobs as they lose formal boundaries of their workspace. While change is typical in the course of work life, clear communication is necessary to mitigate misunderstandings. Any collective feelings of unease or questions about the shifting nature of work roles should be addressed as an organizational matter, not a spatial matter.

From HLW’s years of expertise with designing workplace environments, we know how to make your open office a success. Here are some general open office strategies that have worked well for our clients.

Our Strategies:

  • Create team neighborhoods to allow for easy collaboration while also giving groups or individuals a sense of shared identity.
  • Include a variety of meeting space types ranging from an informal huddle room to a more formal conference room. This variety will allow for choice and control in the workplace so that there are options based on changing work needs.
  • Avoid decision fatigue. Giving people options and a sense of control over the environment is important, but too many decisions (i.e. where to sit on any given day or what spaces to use) can lead to decision fatigue. The workplace should be an asset to people–not a burden.
  • Communicate the vision of the new space. Be transparent about the design intent and how that reinforces the company’s goals and mission.

While the open office may be trending now, the enclosed office is not dead. It is up to the organization and their design firm to decide whether the open office plan is the right choice, and if so, how to design and implement it successfully.

This article was written by Jialin Ke, rising senior studying design at Cornell University, who recently completed an internship with the Strategy & Discovery team at HLW in New York. She had the support of Pete Bacevice, HLW’s Director of Research, in the research and writing of this article.

See more of Jialin’s work here.