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The pros and cons of open-plan offices

Open offices improve teamwork!

Open-plan offices are everywhere. Startups love them, and open-floor layouts are so cost-effective, small and medium businesses are happy to get on board. It doesn’t hurt that open offices are trendier and way cooler than old, boxy cubicles! But are they really for your business?

Open offices offer significant advantages for businesses, but research shows there are some surprising drawbacks too. Here’s what you need to know.

Pros

1. Open offices foster better communication within teams

By breaking down walls and grouping employee workstations together in flexible layouts, open offices make team members more accessible to each other. This boosts communication within the team, which often leads to better teamwork. With most of the organization working in the same space, there are also more “culture collisions” - chance encounters between employees that are conducive to creativity, support, and creating a sense of community.

2. Open offices are flexible and customizable

Open-plan offices are flexible, so businesses don’t have to commit to a single layout. Not only can you fit more employees into an open office (compared to similarly-sized cubicle-style offices), but open-plan layouts can also be rearranged easily as your team grows. Or you can experiment with layouts every few years to keep things fresh! ;)

3. Open offices are cheaper and cost-effective

Also a plus, switching to an open office saves businesses money spent on furnishing dozens of cubicles! With employees working together on large shared-desks, companies can also spend less on shared IT equipment such as copiers, printers, and scanners. In short, open-plan offices are both cheaper to set up and maintain than cubicle-style offices.

Cons

1. Open offices can be noisy and distracting

The biggest downside of open-plan offices is that they can be really noisy. Working together in open spaces also means it’s easier to get distracted - a colleague asking a question, another one talking on the phone about a sales deal, or a few more chatting in the corner about weekend plans - you know how it goes.

Shutting down the noise at workCredit: Glasbergen Cartoon Service

Not sure if that’s a big problem? In Udemy’s 2018 Workplace Distraction Report, 80% of employees cited chatty coworkers and office noise as top distractions. Most open-plan offices have both in spades, so employees often find innovative ways to drown out co-workers and stay focused. 

2. Open offices lack privacy 

With team members working side-by-side all day, there is little to no privacy in open-plan offices. While that might keep employees focused on work, there are some downsides to the lack of privacy too. Open offices can be intimidating for the introverts in your workforce, but extroverted folks don’t like being watched all the time either.

Employees that feel like they are ‘on display’ at work are less productive too. In a study of Chinese factory workers called ‘The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control’, researchers found that productivity slowed down when the manager was watching, and picked back up again when the workers were unsupervised.

3. Open offices can cause anxiety and stress

Open-plan offices have few, if any, physical barriers, so everyone sees everyone else - all the time. Even if employees have nothing to hide, a surveillance state is an anxiety state. Throw in a bunch of distractions, constant interruptions, the lack of privacy, and the “need” for employees to be seen as busy - it’s a stressful environment to get anything done.

Research also shows that open offices tend to cause age discrimination. Older employees deal with the stressful environment by quitting, skewing the workforce towards younger, healthier folks who weather the rigors of open offices for longer.

While the open-plan offices are a cost-effective and modern approach to workspace design, it’s important to remember that they have surprising drawbacks for businesses. Luckily, all it takes is a few tweaks to make open offices more productive and less stressful.

Take a deliberate approach to your office plan

Now that you know the pros and cons of an open-plan office, you can be thoughtful about your company’s needs and decide if an open office is for you.

If you’re cognizant that many team members work on sensitive customer information or worried about the effects of micromanaging, then perhaps a traditional office layout makes more sense. If you want to encourage ‘culture collisions’ and collaboration, opt for a workspace that is open-plan. Or just get the best of both worlds with a hybrid workspace that combines the flexibility of open-plan offices with private/semi-private rooms for meetings and conferences. :)

Productivity, Collaboration

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