How Well Do Open Offices Work

When it comes to the workings of a company’s office space and design, there are myriad things to consider for the management team. Which departments and employees should sit near each other? How do we encourage employees to interact with those outside of their team? Should we use cubicles or have a more open layout? Which artwork and office furniture do we buy to make our employees feel that they work in a great company? 


A commercial office design trend that we’ve seen growing in popularity over the past decade is the open office concept, which tries to solve most of, if not all of the above questions. All sorts of companies from tech startups to advertising agencies to architecture firms, and many others, have attempted to embrace this new design concept with mixed results. So, how do these open offices work and how does a manager know if it is right or wrong for their company’s work space? 


Open interior layouts are far from a new architectural approach. If you turn on any of the dozen house flipping shows on cable, you’ll see that many of the projects involve open space layouts with less walls that intend to encourage inclusion for anyone in that space whether it is 2 or 20 people. The same theory applies in the office design world where cutting edge companies look to carve out hip work spaces to attract young intelligent employees. There are great reasons to move to an open office plan. In theory, they encourage motivated employees that spend time collaborating with one another to move the company along on its mission. Not only does that pay dividends for the company but it also plays a huge role in employee satisfaction by facilitating higher quality interactions and building community within the team. 


A recent study has shown that contrary to popular belief, open offices do not encourage the type of collaboration that many managers hope for. In fact, they spend up to 73% less time interacting face-to-face with co-workers and relied more on e-mail and instant messaging to decrease the amount of noise. Whether or not you believe this could also be due to shifting preferences in communication away from face-to-face interaction is a topic for another day. Employees usually complain of noise, distractions, lowered productivity, a loss of privacy, and a feeling of being “constantly watched.”


After seeing the science behind this many have wondered why open layout offices can work better in theory than they do in real life. The ability to concentrate on tasks can be more difficult when you have two co-workers on phone calls within 10 feet of your desk, each of them having to be louder than the other in order to hear the person on the other end of the phone. This loss of concentration can lead to unnecessary errors and stress that produce less effective work. 


The good news is that if you currently have an open office concept or were planning to have one, you can make some adjustments to what you have that don’t involve starting over from scratch. 


Although cubicles have received a bad reputation over the years, they go a long way towards reducing the amount of noise that most employees have to deal with when a nearby co-worker is on the phone, on a webinar, or some other activity where there is a lot of talking. The Iron Age Office Carruca Workstationis a great solution for this problem and provides screens of various heights to separate workers. This encourages the face-to-face time that workers desire but also gives them the privacy that they seek. 


While most would say that putting up more walls would completely defeat the concept of effective open office design, creating smaller work space areas designated for quiet work, relaxed work, or small group collaboration away from the general open office area can really give a boost to company productivity. Shown, is an example of the Iron Age Office Rowan Bench at digital marketing agency Wakefly’s Boston office. While Wakefly employs an open office design, they use this space to encourage collaboration between small groups or just for people when they need to get into a good concentration flow away from their desks. 





It is probably fair to say that open offices have advocates and critics but everyone can agree that this is an office design trend that is here to stay for the foreseeable future.  While the data we discussed earlier does shed some negativity on open office design, we have also laid out a few solutions to keeping your open office as is while adding some other adjacent work spaces so workers can feel that they have a way to escape the chaos, focus, and be as productive as needed.


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