Is the Open Office Floor Plan All It’s Cracked Up to Be?
The New Yorker credits a team from Hamburg, Germany for the true origination of the open office floor plan concept dating to the 1950s. Google was one of the first “modern” companies to introduce it. It gained popularity there and with Pixar and other companies jumped on the open office floor plan train for better or worse.
Better or worse? Bloomberg puts it this way: “The open office plan caught on as a way to kick-start creativity and productivity. In the knowledge economy, placing people in close proximity leads to more idea sharing, or so the theory goes.” Yet Bloomberg also says the open office floor plan has become something everybody loves to hate.
Is the plan all it’s cracked up to be? Based on research, it comes down to personal preference. Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group, believes the open office floor plan is popular because it maximizes office space and encourages interaction and spontaneous brainstorming. She adds, “They do require workers to be extra sensitive and considerate in order to avoid distracting or offending their colleagues.”
The case against the open office floor plan
Among the critics is the Washington Post, which says “the open office trend is destroying the workplace.” A Gensler 2013 study puts it this way: “Three out of four workers [in an open office floor plan] struggle to work effectively due to the difficulty in focusing as a result of this floor plan.”
Another opponent: Fortune. “They’re unhealthy, stress-inducing, hostile to productivity, and communicate low social status through the lack of privacy.” A study by global consultancy DEGW found that in an open office floor plan, 95 percent of employees lost 23 minutes per day due to noise and pop-up distractions. With chronic stress already being a major health concern for companies, employees don’t need additional irritation.
Megan Glasgow, marketing director and business developer for Hoy + Stark Architects, has been with the company working in an open office floor plan environment for three years. While she sees pros, she says it takes certain types of employees to be able to handle it: “The only place you can hide is the bathroom. When you have a disagreement with a coworker – and who hasn’t – there’s no private way to handle it. The open office plan is not one for the timid.”
She shared a photo (below) of her office. In describing the photo Glasgow says: “[We] refer to them as “stations” – [they] are a continuous piece of flat workspaces where any employee can pull up a chair and collaborate. The uniformity of the materials and size do not differ from principal to intern, creating a sense of equality and transparency.”
The case for the open office floor plan
On the plus side, an open office floor plan offers easier collaboration; instead of having to call a co-worker or get up to speak to them, employees can easily communicate within their space. In many cases, this concept is a big money saver for businesses.
HR expert Laura MacLeod, LMSW, says start-ups in particular do well with this layout. “These new companies usually have a small tight knit group of workers who already have a flattened hierarchy and collaborate well together. So this layout is very effective and efficient for their culture.”
In a small office such as skincare products FATCO, the open office floor plan is celebrated, according to Cassy Burnside, its founder and CEO. “We love our open-office floor plan! Considering we’re a small team of three people (total), an open floor plan definitely works for us,” Burnside says. “It fosters open communication and allows tasks to get done quickly and efficiently. I could see how as your team grows, this type of office setup could become harder to manage and maybe a little less conducive, but right now, it works for us.”
Yes or no on the open office floor plan?
At the end of the day, offices should be designed with a company’s culture and the needs of different personality types in mind. Whenever possible, designing both open and closed workspaces is best, giving employees options. “Office design should be closely tailored to an organization’s needs and a team’s primary duties. The main goal for employers should be to create a space where staff members feel comfortable and engaged and can perform at their best,” Domeyer says.
Voices.com CEO and founder, David Ciccarelli recently moved his company from two floors of closed off spaces to 45,000 square feet, says: “What you actually need is a thoughtful collection of spaces to support the variety of ways that people work in an office environment. Meaning, that it’s not THAT open of an office floor plan.”
Ciccarelli adds: “Where people tend to go wrong is when they misunderstand the definition and take the open concept to the extreme, in that, everything is open. There needs to be a balance struck within an open floor plan.”