Openness: we experience a positive response when we hear this word, compared to the cold restriction of a word like 'closed'. We expect that openness engenders honesty, transparency and a free passage of ideas.
Most of us see value in the collaborative nature of open-source software, and marvel at people and businesses that are open to change and new opportunities. However, what we gain with openness, we lose with privacy and comfort.
As human beings, we value our privacy, both at home and at work. A strong regard for privacy is vital to accomplishing high focus tasks or sharing sensitive information, and employees often need to be able to speak freely away from the ears of their co-workers.
Walls help minimize the distractions, interruptions and noise that derail the focus workers need to produce good results.
When choosing a new office or revamping an old one, among the most common concerns is the layout. The open office model is much in vogue, but there are a number of companies who have gone full circle and reverted to dividing up their office space.
Does the emphasis on openness and collaboration offered by un-partitioned environments outweigh the need for privacy and individual working spaces?
Let's take a closer look. Here are the pros and cons of open office work spaces.
Open Office Concept Pros
The most successful companies are often those that communicate the most efficiently. Many businesses aim to reduce anything impeding dialog, and walls are the most common physical barrier in a working space.
Face-to-face conversations between desks consume much less time and effort than walking from room to room, and significantly less than sending emails back and forth. Employers are finding this lack of efficiency in communication so alarming that an increasing number of companies have banned inter-company emails, using messenger tools like Slack instead.
Working as a Team
Staff may need to collaborate on different projects, and open offices offer much more scope for supporting collaborative tasks. Decisions can often be reached more quickly face to face and co-workers can get instant feedback on ideas, moving the project forward at a greater pace. After projects have been completed, these groups can move again to areas of the office that suit their needs as they unfold.
A Sense of Togetherness
Staff members may work beside one another every day without forging genuine bonds, and deploying individual cubicles only exacerbates this. Opportunities to work closely can be limited when physical walls are used in an office space, and the chance for casual interactions is reduced further by the divisions between cubicles.
Co-workers can build up camaraderie faster if they are working in physically closer proximity. Improved inter-personal relations developed in an open-office environment can create a more positive atmosphere and reduce the chance of conflict. If people enjoy where they work, they tend to work harder and stay longer.
A More Even Playing Field
All companies have hierarchies based on roles and time spent at the business. New, or less senior, employees are likely to feel less confident knocking on the door of a manager's office than they would be quickly asking a question in an open-plan environment.
New staff are more likely to be well integrated into the company and more easily understand and contribute to key corporate goals when they are working next to their co-workers.
Practically speaking, open offices are cheaper than traditional offices. They require less furniture because more resources can be shared: for example, it's much cheaper to purchase a few tables or work spaces then build offices for senior staff.
A Huge Space is Not Required
Typically, open offices have employees working closer to each other and therefore need less space. Office space, especially in the center of a city, can be a huge expense for a business, and this helps to lower expenses.
Staff are increasingly being offered flexi-time and remote working opportunities, which reduces the hours employees spend within the traditional office environment.
Many spend large amounts of time out with clients or working away from the office, and therefore there is much less need for a fixed desk or an individual cubicle. Empty cubicles are a waste of resources, while open, free-desk environments can offer a more practical option to optimize office space and save money.
Supervision is Easier
For management, supervising a workforce who are all in different cubicles can be difficult. It can seem overbearing and time-consuming to knock and enter individual rooms to monitor staff progress.
Supervision is especially important with staff who have recently joined the company, or who are on new projects. In an open office, managers are able to quite literally oversee staff quickly – without seeming like they are checking up.
Open Office Concept Cons
Now that we have considered the pros of working in an open-office environment, here are the cons:
Many of the benefits of the open-office model come with downsides. While supervision can be made easier with open-plan offices, its effects can be counter-productive. Staff may feel under pressure as they perceive that management is listening to their phone calls or looking over their shoulder.
Employees work most effectively when they are focused solely on their task and are given space to do so, but companies with open offices often struggle to create this atmosphere.
Management can seem overbearing in such a small space and the tension caused by the feeling of being watched can negatively affect an employee's performance.
Potential for Conflict
It's great to work with employees that you get along with, and an open office can help this, but time apart can be beneficial. Not all co-workers are respectful, and unfortunately, in workplaces without soundproofing, the least considerate person is often the only one that can be heard.
In open offices it is difficult to escape noise, and conflicts between co-workers can occur. In a partitioned environment these disputes would easily dissipate, but without this separation, issues can escalate, ultimately damaging staff morale.
Open offices don't offer the regularity of a fixed desk and an individual space which many staff members require, or at least prefer. This impermanence can negatively affect their enjoyment during working hours and their attachment to the company.
In the right conditions employees thrive. They work harder, stay at the company for longer and go beyond what is expected of them. In the wrong conditions, staff discontentment results in a negative atmosphere and, of course, high turnover.
Communication is key, but not all conversations are important. Co-workers in open offices are surrounded by constant chatter and distractions, which can negatively affect many staff. A good working environment would allow an employee to go to shared areas to exchange ideas, but also offer them a peaceful place to do their own work.
A Solution to Keeping the Open Office's Pros and Removing the Cons
A great business will understand its staff's needs, and doesn't necessarily need to make an exclusive choice between open and closed structures.
Companies can look at the benefits of communal working and foster teamwork and collaboration into any office's design, without sacrificing privacy and security.
Employers should be aware of the intense nature of open offices and how the negative impact they can have over long periods, especially for staff's attempts to focus and de-stress.
There is an increasing industry awareness of the value to be derived from offering staff places designated for reflection and calm, and specific quiet rooms are proving popular and effective for employees and employers.