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The End of a Controversial Era: Is the Open Office Dying?

image for Branislav Nenin / Shutterstock
Branislav Nenin / Shutterstock
  • In recent years, many companies have transitioned from private to open office floor plans, including major businesses such as Facebook, Google and Apple.
  • Some of the pros of open office spaces are that they are highly collaborative settings, make it easier for employees to build relationships and rapport, and are cost-effective.
  • Some of the cons of open office spaces are that they can decrease productivity, cause privacy issues and decrease job satisfaction.

Over the past decade, many modern offices have transitioned from private to open, with a floor plan free of cubicles or closed workspaces and lined with shared tables. According to research by Sage on open office plans, 80% of U.S. businesses implement this type of layout, including Apple, Google and Facebook.

Like any office structure, the open office has pros and cons. According to Flame Schoeder, ICF-credentialed life coach, success in this layout depends on each employee's personality.

"I've noticed that it is hardest on introverts, those with sensitive nervous systems and those who tie their self-worth to the status of a 'corner office,'" she said.

On the other hand, Schoeder said, the open office breeds more collaboration and stronger bonds.

These are some of the pros of using an open office floor plan:

  • It makes a collaborative team setting. Open offices can be a great setup for many companies, depending on the structure of their team and the nature of their work. A highly collaborative workforce, for instance, is typically more successful in an open office environment than an independent one.

  • It fosters a tight-knit workplace. The open office strengthens co-worker bonds, Schoeder said. "This increases everyone's innate sense of accountability in their culture, which can make it easier to solve problems and get work done. There can also be a more casual connection, and therefore more authentic[ity], between bosses and employees."

  • It's cost-effective. Given that fewer materials are necessary to create an open office space, the open office has become the norm in an effort to create more inclusive, affordable workspaces.

  • It's more flexible. According to WeWork, open offices are ideal for businesses that employ creatives or prefer a nontraditional workspace. These layouts help many employees feel more creative and productive.

  • It has more space for employees. You'll be able to fit more workers into open spaces than closed-off offices. This makes it easy to train and work with large groups of people at one time.

  • It's more aesthetically pleasing. Another major benefit of working in open office spaces is that they tend to look more appealing. The cubicle model is been associated with boredom and mundane workdays. Many businesses with open floor plans give the impression of being much more exciting and inviting (see Google's floor plans, for example).

  • It's trendy. If you are looking to employ younger workers, an open floor plan is preferable. Based on appearance alone, an open office is more likely to attract young, vibrant talent.

Despite the many benefits of using an open office floor plan, there are also some cons:

  • Lower productivity: Depending on the employer and the nature of the work, this layout can actually decrease productivity. This layout has received backlash, with many workers feeling less productive and less valued – and more insecure and distracted. Sage reported that in open offices, productivity reduced by 15%, sick days increased by 62%, and distractions increased by 54%, impacting even the highest-performing employees. These findings show an alarming disconnect between the preferred office layout and employee efficiency and happiness.

  • Lack of privacy: Another major issue of the open office setting in that it can make employees feel less secure, due to the lack of privacy. "Ironically, some of the cons similarly related to camaraderie and transparency involve not having any privacy and feeling like you can't concentrate – every conversation you have is fodder for public knowledge," said Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster. 

  • Lower job satisfaction: A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health found that "employees working in small or medium-sized open-plan offices consistently reported lower levels of job satisfaction, subjective well-being, and ease of interaction with co-workers than employees working in cellular or shared-room offices."

  • Germs: According to WeWork, given the recent COVID-19 outbreak, open office companies are facing some issues. Individual cubicles and offices are much more effective against spreading germs and diseases.

 

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Does that mean the open office is dead? Not necessarily.

Despite its downsides, the open office plan is still valued by many leaders. For instance, Salemi said the setup is appropriate from a financial perspective, which is a common reason employers choose it over others.

"Put as many people together as possible and see where organic conversations and brainstorming sessions occur," Salemi said.

However, it certainly has its issues – and they're worth factoring into your decision. [Read related article: Which Type of Office Should Your Business Run?]

"Each organization … needs to think long and hard about whether [an open office] works with their culture and what they hope to achieve before committing to it," said Schoeder. "It's a commitment of more than just construction costs. Whatever is in your culture will be amplified by taking down the walls."

There's much controversy regarding the workplace of the future, with many workplace experts predicting an end to open offices, and others claiming it will remain the preferred (and most affordable) option. There's no way to know for sure, but if the workforce does shift its preferred office plan, it will likely be for good reason.

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