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Businesses Recalculate the Open Office Concept

Communal workspaces have created challenges for employee productivity. Some companies are adjusting their layouts to offer workers more options while also keeping barriers down.

December 20, 2019

Businesses seeking to foster more collaboration among internal teams have been reimagining their office layouts over the last few years, tearing down cubicle dividers and removing private workspaces to achieve greater openness. But some unintended consequences of removing physical barriers have emerged, casting doubt on the open office concept, recent studies show.

Such a layout tends to invite disruption, with fewer walls blocking visual distractions and noise. Open offices also can reduce face-to-face employee interaction and encourage more use of email. Only 28% of employees say they prefer an open office layout, while 52% desire private offices, according to a survey from Clutch, a B2B ratings and reviews platform.

These challenges could lead to a turning point in the popular open office concept. “I don’t see the open office being embraced lately as much as it had been,” says Eric Wagner, senior director of project management at commercial real estate firm CBRE. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all for firms. There are some disadvantages that are being addressed, particularly when it comes to how these spaces affect worker productivity. Open office layouts likely will remain, but the closed office or a more hybrid office space is slowly starting to creep in.”

Technology giants like Google, which famously eliminated private offices in its headquarters, kicked off the open office craze. There are several perks of such a floor plan: Open offices require less retrofitting, making them cheaper to design, and they allow for greater communal areas, such as full-service kitchens, cafes, and rooftop terraces.

Open offices, however, aren’t for every type of business, Wagner says. Firms that offer greater opportunities to work remotely may find an open floor plan more beneficial. But the loss of noise control in an open office may hinder businesses whose missions are built around client interactions, Wagner says.

Adapting a Hybrid Approach

The open office concept isn’t likely to be abandoned altogether. Many businesses are attempting to address noise problems with design consultants and embracing high-tech furnishings to minimize workplace distractions. “What we’re seeing in the market is that organizations have the most success when implementing a purposeful variety of settings in a floor plan,” says Nick Butterfield, a spokesperson with Herman Miller, a furniture company. “It’s not fully open and not all private offices. In the same way that one cannot use only one space in their home to do all of their activities, we believe employees need the same flexibility in the workplace.”

Herman Miller culls social science and home behavior research to inform its workplace product offerings. The company has noticed a trend toward hybrid workspaces filled with technology, mobility, privacy, and green spaces.

Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist and principal at consulting firm Design With Science, says she’s fielding more calls from companies who want to reevaluate their office space and incorporate a variety of workspaces into one environment. “They’re developing activity spaces within an open workspace so it’s not just a sea of people working at long tables,” Augustin says. Businesses are creating specialized spaces that are soundproofed to meet individuals’ needs and more open areas to spark greater collaboration.

Some companies are adding restaurant-style booths with higher walls for more privacy and private pods with four walls and a roof that appear like an old phone booth.

Design consultants also are helping businesses minimize worker distractions. For example, consultants may recommend the use of plants as a noise buffer or painting the wall a more neutral color to help eliminate some of the workplace distractions.

Some employers are redesigning their open spaces as a labyrinth filled with partial walls, corners, and large potted and hanging plants to maintain greater separation between workers’ desks. Frosted glass panels may be used to add “focus rooms” and more private meeting spaces. Technology is helping, too, such as with curved computer monitors or even sound-absorbing light fixtures.

“I think more companies are realizing that there is a limit to the open office layout,” Wagner says. “The pendulum may have swung too far, and the floor plans became too open. We’re at the extreme right now of how open it’s gotten. We’re going to see it swing back to a more hybrid model.”

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