Is an Open-Plan Office a Bad Idea for Your Business?

Within the next few years, an increasing number of workers will find themselves working without walls. Across the country, businesses are switching from the “cubicle farm” concept that has been popular for the past few decades to a new open-plan office that removes partitions and encourages collaboration. The looming question and debate is whether an open-plan office is a bad idea for your business. Let’s take a look.

When it comes to an office without walls, the trend actually borrows from a concept our parents and grandparents likely recall. As office environments come full-circle, however, many critics are already finding problems with the concept. While many businesses likely won’t change their minds because of the money-saving features of the open-plan office, a brief look back through the history of office space might explain what we can expect from this new trend.

The History

In the 1950s and early 1960s, most workers sat at desks lined up in rows with no walls or partitions between them. Whether these workers were part of secretarial pools who tapped away on typewriter keys or technicians who reviewed plans all day, workers were challenged to focus on the task at hand while visual and audio distractions surrounded them.

The cubicle concept was created in 1967 by a research corporation who had spent seven years studying the office environment as it had evolved during the 20th century. The corporation studied the many issues plaguing workers in the workplace, concluding that while the amount of information employees were required to analyze and process had increased, the office environment had stayed the same.

Cubicles were chosen because the walls and attached furniture were relatively easy to move, while also not taking up too much space. The walls provided space to post items and hooks could easily be hung over the top to hold coats and purses. Originally called “Action Office,” these cubicle-based office plans took off quickly and remained in place until a few years ago, when the walls began coming down.

The Issues

The cost savings and attractiveness of an open-plan office make it hard to resist. But studies into productivity issues with open-plan offices have produced results not much better than the results of those studies in the 60s. One of many studies, purchased in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that in a study of 44,000 open-plan office workers, dissatisfaction was high, primarily due to noise and loss of privacy. The researchers noted that while the trend is being sold as encouraging collaboration, no research literature exists that proves this.

Many of these studies have found that any benefits gained from removing office walls are by far eclipsed by the pitfalls of dissatisfied workers who are unable to concentrate. However, for many growing businesses, all of those benefits and pitfalls are eclipsed by the cost savings that can be achieved by squeezing more employees into less space.

Your Workplace

Despite the fact that 81 percent of employers surveyed have already adopted an open-plan office, there are businesses still utilizing cubicles and old-fashioned walls. Even more workplaces are adapting a work-from-home policy that allows those workers who do show up every day to enjoy a little more privacy.

Whether an open-plan office is best for your business depends on your own environment. Some businesses employ workers who do complex tasks in isolation while others employ teams of workers who collaborate on projects throughout the day. The vast majority of businesses will have a combination of these job types, with some employees requiring privacy at times interspersed with periods of collaboration throughout the day.

For that reason, ingenious hybrid models have emerged, with some businesses opting to have a combination of walled offices, standing workstations, open work areas, and even recliners and couches. Using a mobile device, workers can move to the desired area throughout the day as their needs shift.

One company has come up with an innovative solution to the open-office backlash. Design company KI created movable walls that provide businesses a variety of options for office spaces, allowing them to simply remove a wall when they need more collaboration. This flexibility is great for offices that are growing and transitioning on a regular basis.

As popular as the open-plan office has become, it is an option that is not best for every worker. Before making such a drastic change, consider the environment Facebook created at its Menlo Park office, which is a combination of workspaces that allow for both privacy and collaboration. This type of hybrid environment will likely be the best solution for many growing businesses.

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Stephanie Faris

Stephanie is a freelance writer and young adult/middle grade novelist, who worked in information systems for more than a decade. Her first book, 30 Days of No Gossip, will be released by Simon and Schuster in spring 2014. She lives in Nashville with her husband.

5 thoughts on “Is an Open-Plan Office a Bad Idea for Your Business?

  1. Jacques Bastien

    Interesting read Stephanie. I own a boutique social media + digital agency and my office is completely ‘open’ (no doors). I mean, so open that we each don’t even have our own desks … just workspaces that we use base on the work that we’re doing and I’ve had great success with this.

    I’ll definitely look into those moving walls though, not a bad idea.

    Our office tour —>

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