Maybe open office spaces have initiated the halcyon days of productivity. Or maybe they’re a harbinger of workplace productivity doom. It all depends on whom you ask.
Open offices were meant to be the antidote to the woes of cubicle dwelling — a friendlier, more efficient and generally more human workplace. While these office setups do come with some benefits, they’re also not without shortcomings. As a result, open-office plans have received a fair amount of backlash in recent years.
So do open office plans help productivity, or do they inhibit it? It turns out the answer is both.
If you’re starting a business or experiencing growth, you may be deciding whether to lease or buy office space. Consider your current cash flow, your desire for equity, and whether you prefer to control your property or let someone else take care of it.
The open office concept was devised in Germany in the 1950s. Known as Bürolandschaft (which translates to “office landscape”), open office plans aimed to eliminate workplace hierarchies.
In the U.S., the trend took off after Google reinvented its main offices in 2005. Facebook followed suit in 2015 with what became the world’s largest open office layout, housing about 2,800 employees on an expansive campus. According to a study by global architecture and design firm Gensler, two-thirds of U.S. knowledge workers worked in an open-plan office in 2020.
Open offices caught on for valid reasons. Businesses noticed that the layout brought increased cost savings, more collaboration and enhanced transparency. Here’s a more in-depth look at the advantages of open office plans.
In an open office plan, businesses don’t have to buy cubicle materials or furnish private offices. They can squeeze more people into less square footage and enjoy fewer maintenance costs.
Open offices can also save money in more intangible ways, such as mitigating the costs of disengaged workers. According to the 2022 Gallup State of the Global Workplace report, only 21 percent of the global workforce is engaged — which costs the global economy $7.8 trillion.
Open floor plans allow managers to interact with and observe employees up close. They can spot signs of employee burnout, monitor employee performance, and pinpoint disengaged workers. When these problems are brought to light, companies can address them head-on and help employees improve. When engagement levels increase, stress and productivity issues decrease — and businesses save money.
Beyond their cost-saving benefits, open offices foster a sense of a shared mission among co-workers and managers. Collaboration improves employee performance, and open office plans are inherently collaborative. They create a less hierarchical, more laid-back atmosphere, facilitating communication and co-worker interaction.
Collaboration often leads to enhanced productivity, creativity and team innovation.
Open offices cultivate a sense of community and bring inherent business transparency. By the very nature and setup of an open office environment, it’s easier to share information, keep teams updated, and work toward common goals.
When executives and workers share the same workspace, barriers break down, and communication and understanding increase. When manager and employee relationships improve, problems tend to be solved more efficiently and effectively, which profoundly and positively affects workplace productivity.
Despite the benefits an open office brings, these floor plans have significant downsides. Here are some of the most significant cons of open office plans.
Open offices create a shared environment — and shared environments often present persistent distractions, including noise. Whether they take the form of ringing phones or water cooler talk, noisy interruptions can waste employees’ time and drain their productivity. This is especially true when workers feel they have no control over their environment. Headphones or “quiet hours” can help, but this sometimes inhibits the collaboration open spaces are meant to foster.
Hybrid work arrangements — some remote work days and some in-office days — can reduce distractions, lower stress, and decrease sick days. According to a 2023 survey by IWG, nearly 75 percent of respondents would compromise on salary to maintain a hybrid work arrangement.
Providing every employee with private office space often isn’t financially feasible. To improve productivity in an open office play, try to find a healthy balance between collaborative and private spaces. Here are a few ways to improve your current office plan to increase employee productivity and wellness and create a strong company culture.
Employees benefit from collaborative workspaces. However, they also need space to process interactions, hold private meetings, concentrate on challenging or time-sensitive work, or otherwise satisfy their work style. To achieve this, consider adding private alcoves, work bays or breakout rooms to an otherwise open office space.
When you foster a culture of empowered employees who can shift their work environment according to their needs, office morale and performance can increase.
Aside from allocating private spaces, find ways to tweak your open office plan and your office’s environmental factors to cultivate employee wellness and productivity. For example, ensure adequate space for work areas so employees aren’t annoyingly close together. Additionally, improve employees’ health and productivity by ensuring quality airflow, using natural lighting, offering access to green spaces and providing ergonomic office furniture.
Your goal is to create a work environment that makes employees feel valued. In this scenario, executives are approachable, and workers are empowered to adapt their workstations to their needs (or work outside the office if necessary). Creating a happy and productive work culture can help with employee retention, consistent communication, better teamwork and alignment with the company mission.
Julie Thompson contributed to this article.