Is an Open Office Space Still the Perfect Choice for a Modern Company?

February 14, 2019

Woman working at her desk in an open office setting
Erin Ollila

With the rise of open spaces and a team-based working model, "quiet time" has become a rare thing in the modern workplace. But which atmosphere is best for employees to thrive — an open office or private work stations? Is it possible to have the best of both worlds in one area? Learn about the pros and cons of an open office space, and how the proper setup can foster productivity and engage employees.

The Pros of an Open Office Space

Open offices were designed with collaboration in mind. By simply removing physical boundaries, an open office promotes interaction between employees — exactly what all business owners are looking for. No longer does an individual feel the need to schedule an appointment on a peer or supervisor's calendar to hash out details on a project they're working on together. Instead, this person could easily peek over to make sure their partner is available, and informally check in with questions. It also assists with ergonomics and workplace design, as employees can switch between workstations that best suit their current needs, such as standing desks or treadmill stations after being sedentary for too long.

Alex Membrillo, CEO of Cardinal Digital Marketing, adds an additional point, "A great benefit to open offices is that people are less likely to be blatantly wasting time. If someone shuts the door to their office, you may assume they're productively working. However, they could easily be on Facebook, surfing the web, texting, or making personal calls. We once caught an employee who was sitting in their office watching TV throughout the day, opposed to working." Open offices help hold employees accountable, to their supervisors and to themselves.

What Cons Are There to Open Offices?

While increased productivity and accountability are great, open offices aren't perfect for every organization, and there are downfalls even in the companies who love one huge, wide-open space. Lack of privacy, inability to focus and the need for quiet areas are just a few cons to a creating completely open environment.

Thomas Anselmino, co-founder at MEAVO office phone booths, reports that a recent study completed by the company found that 55 percent of respondents working in open-plan offices wished they had more privacy. Open offices make it so your team can't converse on the phone with clients — or even talk between themselves — about something they'd rather not discuss with a group at large. Take for example an HR employee who is processing an FMLA claim. Her responsibility is to keep the medical information of the employee confidential, but if there is no separate space for them to speak, other employees may overhear, which breaks the confidentiality required under FMLA regulations.

Open floor plans can also be quite distracting to professionals. Holly Wolf, Director of Customer Engagement at SOLO Laboratories, agrees and says, "I'm an extrovert and very social person, but when I need to get things done, I prefer no distractions. For me that means, closing my door so I don't see who is walking down the hall or hear conversations that are simply distractions."

And it's not just her creative process that does well with a private space. She also prefers separation so as to avoid overwhelming her peers. Wolfe says, "What's probably annoying to others is that I talk to myself or may read aloud a piece of my writing to help me find the right words. It's part of my creative process and I find it valuable, but I'm sure it's distracting to others."

Still Spaces and Quiet Places: Introducing Focus Areas in the Modern Workplace

According to MEAVO's aforementioned recent study, "26% of people working in open-plan offices admitted that they have taken calls in the toilet because they couldn't find any other quiet place to do so." A bathroom stall is certainly no place to complete work tasks ... for many reasons! There are various other workplace setups for companies who want to introduce focus areas, but still keep an overall open space.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to create distraction-free zones where employees can revert to if they need privacy or focus. Doing so allows modern employees to celebrate collaboration while out in the office space, but be at ease knowing that they have an area to go when necessary. Private phone booths and converted conference rooms or library spaces are one way to create distraction-free zones in an organization that embraces open office layouts.

Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to setting up a workplace. Some employees may like an open area without assigned seating, while others will flock to the quiet spaces you create. While every organization has different needs, the best office layout tends to be one that caters to both zones. When planning your offices needs for proper ergonomics and workplace design, create quiet zones within your open office, and everyone will win.

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