If you think the open-office concept is a 21st century innovation, you couldn’t be more wrong. The idea of designing a workspace which incorporates natural light and encourages employees to freely move about has been an architectural form since the early 1900s. In 1934 Architect Frank Lloyd Wright conceived his open-office space for the SC Johnson and Son headquarters. Since then, the innovative design has been analyzed, massaged, debated, lauded and despised by design professionals, journalists, office managers and employees
We’ll review the benefits and pitfalls of the open-office plan and offer some guidance for your next office remodeling or commercial renovation.
You’ve Gotta Love It
- Office designers and architects who hail the open-office concept praise the:
- Incorporation of more windows and therefore more natural light, which researchers have found increases employee alertness and productivity, and reduces fatigue
- Opportunity for managers to have direct contact with office teams, which helps keep projects on schedule
- Possibility for greater collaboration between employees, encouraged by having fewer walls and doors
- Occasions when employees casually encounter each other, or collide, sparking fresh ideas
- More relaxed and productive work environment
- Spaces designed for small-group collaboration and interaction
- Opportunity for more desks in a given area
- Concept’s feeling of inclusion, as if everyone, including executives and CEOs, is on the same team
You’ve Gotta Hate It
If you’re convinced the open-office design is the worst idea ever conceived – you wouldn’t be alone here – you might agree with the following list of objections:
- Employees complain that their concentration is interrupted by other coworkers’ phone calls and chatting, and the sounds of footsteps heard throughout the office
- People dislike the lack of privacy
- Staff members feel the lack of individual space creates strained coworker relations
- Employees believe that workstations without walls would force them to always work across from the same person
- Office workers report lower productivity, because of the above mentioned issues
- People feel the open concept increases the possibility of theft
To add to the list of criticisms, research conducted by Harvard University has found that the open-office concept can decrease employee face-to-face interaction by 70%, yet increase their electronic communication. In other words, some employees working in an open-office environment withdraw and choose to communicate via email and IM.
How Can You Design an Office Space That Pleases Everyone?
It’s impossible to create an office design in which all of your employees will be completely happy, but, you can get fairly close. First, interview your staff and find out what they like or dislike about their present office environment and what they understand about an open-office concept. After all, they’re the ones who will be working in the space.
Second, if you have hired an architect or interior design specialist, let them make a presentation to your staff and answer their questions. Maybe the pros can arrange a tour of an office they created that is similar to the concept you’re considering.
If you’ve decided on an open-office environment, reassure your reluctant staff there are ways to provide privacy. Think of sound-absorbing, painted or fabric-covered movable walls, free-standing folding screens made from a variety of materials, a green wall of living plants, translucent panels, bookcases or filing cabinets, all of which are low enough to let the staff benefit from natural light. You can also create a private nook with a comfortable chair or include a conference room, which can be reserved when a member of the staff needs quiet time away from office sounds and distractions.
Regardless of the design’s detractors, you can be assured the open-plan concept isn’t going away any time soon. So expect architects and office-design specialists to continue to find creative ways to satisfy your introverted employees’ need for solitude.