The great open office debate: The good, the bad, the indifferent

Google and Facebook are doing it so it must be right. Right? Wrong. Well, kind of. In the world of interior office design, there is no concept more controversial than open offices. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground: People either hate or love the idea. The concept, which makes use of large, open spaces instead of enclosed rooms such as private offices, is seen as either an overhyped buzzword or collaborative solution.

But here’s the thing: People are right and wrong about open offices. Why? Because open offices are both incredible and horrible in equal amounts. They are collaborative spaces which eliminate privacy. They foster creativity while breaking individual concentration. They lower office costs in exchange for lower team morale. It is this dichotomy that makes the concept of open offices so interesting: How can something so hated become so ubiquitous in the world of interior design?

The good

Let’s focus on the good — after all, the open office must be doing something right to reach its current level of adoption. Open offices carried the torch from cubicles in the late 2000s as a way of better serving employees and promoting collaboration. And for the most part, this is true. One of the biggest positives championed by open offices is the communicative culture it can foster. The removal of walls removes hierarchy. Workers of every level are more approachable and ideas can be more easily discussed. In fact, some of the world’s largest companies have open plan offices. Take for instance Facebook: Its campus is a single room stretching 10-acres, as the company considers it “the largest open floor plan in the world.”

The idea of collaboration is something proponents of open offices like to highlight. But in more practical terms, open offices do great things for a company’s bottom line. The open design means less office infrastructure needs to be purchased and installed. The concept is all about flexibility, both for the worker and the company. Is the desk configuration not working? Change it. Are certain groups or individuals not working well together? Move them. So how can it be that some people call open offices a “disaster” that are “destroying the workplace”?

The bad

Interestingly enough, many of the same features that proponents highlight in favor of open offices are viewed by critics as drawbacks. For example, some believe that rather than collaboration, the lack of walls only creates noise. Along with an intended removal of hierarchy comes the removal of privacy. There’s even scientific research that backs up the notion that open offices decrease employees’ job satisfaction and decreases privacy, which also leads to decreased productivity. The study maintains that “personal control over the physical workspace (e.g., adjustment) and easy access to meeting places led to higher perceived group cohesiveness and job satisfaction.”

Another study suggested much the same: “The open plan offices may have short-term financial benefits, but these benefits may be substantially lower than the costs associated with decreased job satisfaction and well-being,” wrote study lead author Dr. Tobias Otterbring. “The results show a negative relationship between the number of coworkers sharing an office and employees’ job satisfaction.” Others even maintain open offices are a health concern as germs are more transferable. These open office criticisms are rooted in the impact the design has on personnel, which can then affect the business itself.

Clearly, there are two schools of thought in this war on office design. But perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The middle

The heart of the matter is that open offices will either work or not based on a myriad of factors, with the most important being industry. Some jobs require a higher level of silence and privacy, in which case, an open office plan is inadvisable. Think about accountants trying to crunch numbers or having sensitive conversations with clients: open offices are not conducive to these situations. However, open offices are found to be far more successful for marketing or writing professionals. These sectors thrive off collaboration and creativity, in which case non-obtrusive office arrangements flourish.

I can already hear the open office haters: “So then, what is the solution?” And that is a good question because open offices are already here and seem positioned to stay. In fact, 80% of US offices are now open designs. Open offices are unique, cost-effective solutions, but one size does not fit all. In an ideal world, every office should be tailor-made to individual needs. A custom approach, with features like acoustic paneling and resonance speakers, can help companies eliminate some of the aforementioned problems. However, this is not always the case.

The unfortunate truth can be that unless the company itself is prepared to implement the solution especially for their needs, responsibility may lay with the workers themselves to undo any open office issues. For instance, as this blog recommends, if your working space is too loud, maybe it’s time you buy noise-canceling headphones. Do you find a coworker’s loud phone call irritating? Maybe move to another area. The advice is clear: Be the change you wish to see in the open office.

Andrew Oziemblo, the chief executive officer of Illinois-based office design firm Cubicle Concepts. Andrew has more than 15 years of experience working closely with companies to transform their workspaces. Andrew is a leading practitioner in workplace design transformation, with over 15 years of experience within the industry. His work has covered an expansive range of clients, from SMEs to Fortune 500 companies.