More and more companies, especially startups, are adopting open office floor plans. Today, nearly 70% of all offices have open floor plans. Companies of all sizes see open offices as an opportunity to reduce real estate footprint and costs – you can put more people into an open layout. In fact, as more companies embrace remote work, the need for dedicated private offices diminishes. The trend has been fueled in large part by startups. Some startup teams are nimble, energetic and productive, and people assume that open offices are, at least in part, responsible for those traits.
Despite this trend towards open offices, there’s a growing body of research casting doubt on the benefits of open offices. Researchers have found, for example, that the benefits of easy communication in an open office layout don’t outweigh the lack of privacy, and other disadvantages.
The chart below, from Harvard Business Review, summarizes the biggest complaints about different types of office layouts (based on a study of more than 42,000 U.S. office workers).
As you can see, people complain the most about open offices and cubicles.
The researchers, Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear of the University of Sydney wrote:
Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction. The open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.
Should you sound the alarm and build private offices for your teams?
No, unless there are specific reasons that private offices are necessary.
I’m a big fan of open offices, but I believe it’s extremely important to create an office plan that overcomes the many real challenges of open offices.
Here are five strategies to help you get started:
1. Build a culture of quiet. Many companies encourage (or don’t discourage) open and loud communications in an open office. This builds a dangerous culture. After all, open offices have few sound-reducing walls. A study found that workers exposed to open office noise for three hours can experience an increase in adrenaline levels associated with the fight-or-flight response.
From the start, build a culture of quiet – encourage people to talk in private rooms or common areas, and to use chat tools like Slack or HipChat. Encourage people to use headphones – especially noise-canceling headphones. These can help cut out background noises and distractions and can also boost productivity.
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2. Create collaborative, diverse spaces. Noise, interruption and lack of privacy are real problems in open offices. But these problems can be overcome through diverse areas where people can comfortably collaborate without interrupting others. The best open office plans create plenty of collaborative spaces for people to meet. For example, Basecamp created an open office with small private conference rooms, larger conference rooms, and other common spaces.
At crowdSPRING, we have access to a sound-isolated conference room and another “living-room” type area that’s isolated from the work area.
3. Create spaces that work for your team. Many companies mistakenly implement open office plans that mimic other companies. “We want to be more like Google or Facebook” is great – but your team might work very differently and might require a very different office plan. Think about your goals and how an open office would help you achieve those goals. Consider certain functions on your team (sales, customer service, etc.) that need to be on the phone throughout the day and find ways to minimize distractions to and by those groups. Often, groups that need to regularly use the phone are best isolated to a specific area of the office (in some cases, a private area).
4. Don’t silo people in open offices. Many companies – especially larger companies – silo people by building tall partitions between desks. This gives people a false sense of acoustic privacy and ultimately increases the overall noise of the entire office. If you need some physical partitions, make them short enough to allow people to see each other – and consider acoustically treated partitions to help with noise. After all, a sense of privacy can help increase productivity.
5. Build a top-down, bottom-up open office culture. For open offices to succeed, managers should be working in the open office, not in private offices. Not only would this help managers to learn more about their own companies, but it would send a clear signal to the entire team about the company’s commitment to an open office plan.
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