The right open office design is an invaluable asset for your business. It provides employees with a productive, efficient environment in which to work while fostering a positive company culture in the process. Although there are countless ways to design an office, many businesses use an open layout for their office. So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of an open office, and is right for your business?
Open Office Design Explained
An open office design is an office layout that’s characterized by the presence of large spaces with few or no partition walls or structures. In the past, offices were typically designed using cubicles, with each worker having his or her own cubicle. Now, a growing number of businesses have switched to an open design, which features one or more large open spaces rather than cubicles. The lack of walls provides a better communication method for employees and also increases teamwork by not feeling “walled in”.
Characteristics of an open office design include:
- Large open spaces
- Few or no enclosed spaces
- Few or no partition walls
- Workers can easily see each other
- Short computer desks and furniture
History of the Open Office Design
Although it just recently gained popularity in the modern-day workplace, open offices have been around for many decades. In the first half of the 20th century, open offices were designed with rows of chairs, desks and benches. In the 1950s, a German design team named Quickborner expanded on this design to develop what would eventually become the modern-day open office design. Quickborner believed that removing walls within an office would allow workers to communicate more effectively with each other, so they created a design that consisted of workgroups in large, open spaces.
The open office design didn’t exactly take off, however. In the United States, as well as in other regions, companies opted for cubicles up until the late 20th century. Around the 1990s, this methodology shifted towards the open office design. This was a pivotal time for companies, as the mobile technology was transforming the workplace. To capitalize on the trend of mobile technology in the workplace, companies began using an open office design. This allowed employees to work from any area within the office using their smartphone, tablet computer or other mobile device.
Popularity of the Open Office Design
The open office design has become incredibly popular. While the exact number remains unknown, a report published by The Washington Post suggests that 70% of all commercial office spaces in the United States use this layout. Whether it’s Google, Apple, Amazon or Netflix, countless companies now use an open office design. Given the newfound popularity for open offices, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that it offers several benefits.
Pro: Easier Communication
Quickborner created the open office design because it believed that it would improve communication between workers. With traditional cubicles and individual rooms, workers are often required to walk across the office to talk with other workers. This takes time, which could be used for other, more productive tasks (we’ll get to that later). The open office design, however, allows workers to communicate more easily and efficiently. If a worker wants to ask another worker a question, he or she can typically stand up and ask it. This is important because a study published by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that companies that communicate effectively generated 47% higher profits than their counterparts with poor communication skills. When workers can easily communicate with each other, they can troubleshoot problems, delegate tasks and finish projects more quickly.
Con: It’s Noisy
A common complaint shared by employees who work in an open office is that it’s distracting. Without walls or enclosed spaces, noise can travel more freely throughout the office. And considering that noise is the most commonly cited cause of inefficient work, according to a survey of more than 11,00 workers, this may deter some business owners from using an open office design.
The constant noise of computers, devices and workers talking can be distracting, but this shouldn’t prevent you from using an open layout in your office. There are ways to reduce noise in an open office, including the following:
- Place rugs made of sound-absorbing material on the floor
- Designate specific areas of your office as a “quiet zone”
- Ask workers to turn down the volume on their computers and devices
- Install acoustic ceiling panels
- Add container plants throughout your office to further absorb sound
- Encourage workers to keep speak softly
- Ask workers to step outside to talk when making or receiving personal calls
- Use a white noise machine to dampen otherwise distracting noise
Pro: Increased Wi-Fi Strength
Another advantage of using an open office design is increased Wi-Fi strength. The current generation of Wi-Fi technology loses strength as the signal goes through walls or other physical structures. Therefore, workers in traditional cubicle offices may experience slow speeds or dropped connections. This isn’t an issue with open offices. Thanks to their open nature with few or no walls, Wi-Fi signals are stronger and more reliable. If workers in your office rely on Wi-Fi to send and receive emails, share files, access databases or other information technology (IT) tasks, you should consider an open office design for this reason.
Con: No Privacy
Workers have little or no privacy in open offices. A study conducted in 2013, found that nearly one-third of workers in open offices aren’t happy with this layout because of its lack of privacy. With cubicles, workers have their own individual workstation that’s partially enclosed. This offers workers a private area where they aren’t being constantly watched. Open offices, on the other hand, lack this privacy.
Like noise, though, there are ways to overcome this problem and provide workers with privacy. You can place large whiteboards, for example, between desks, or you can create a collaboration space in a spare room. Alternatively, you can create a semi-open layout that features both open and enclosed spaces.
If you’re worried about lack of privacy causing dissatisfaction among workers, ask them for their input. You can valuable insight into your workers’ thoughts on an open office design simply by asking.
Pro: Higher Productivity
You may discover that workers are more productive in an open office. Granted, there’s conflicting evidence regarding the impact that open offices have on worker productivity. Some studies show that it hurts productivity, whereas others show that it increases productivity. The studies suggesting that open offices hurt productivity, however, are usually attributed to the fact that it’s noisy and, subsequently, distracting. But that’s something you can overcome by following the tips previously mentioned.
An open office design can actually make workers more productive in several ways. First, workers can communicate more easily. Second, improved Wi-Fi strength means fewer IT problems. Third, open offices are easy to navigate, allowing workers to quickly traverse the workplace.
Con: Fewer Design Options
You’ll have fewer design options with an open layout. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t create a unique, custom design that accurately reflects your business’s culture. Rather, you must choose the right furniture and decorative accessories. Avoid generic, low-quality furniture and accessories that offer no real aesthetic value. Instead, design your open office with high-quality chairs, desks, tables and other items.
Another way to improve the aesthetics of your open office is to paint the walls in a bold, attractive color. Blue and green are both popular choices for office designs. Blue is said to spark creativity and imagination, whereas green sparks productivity and balance. You can use other colors in your office’s design, but green and blue are excellent choices because of their psychological impact.
Pro: Lower Cost
Open offices typically cost less to design than traditional offices with cubicles and enclosed rooms. According to Study.com, open offices cost about 20% less than their traditional counterparts. How are they cheaper exactly? Well, open offices are characterized by their minimalistic approach with fewer, smaller pieces of furniture, so you’ll spend less money on furniture when creating them.
Aside from a cheaper initial cost, you’ll also save money on heating and cooling expenses with an open office design. With a traditional office design, the heating, ventilation and cooling system (HVAC) may struggle to provide heated or cooled air to each workers’ cubicle. This means a higher monthly electric bill and increased overhead for your business. An open layout can lower your business’s monthly electric bill by allowing heated and cooled air to flow more freely through your office.
Furthermore, open offices are easier to maintain than a traditional office. You don’t have to worry about dusting and cleaning partition walls, thereby saving you money on cleaning products and labor. Of course, you should still clean the furniture in your open office, but you’ll probably find that it’s easier and cheaper to clean because of its simplistic nature.
A potential disadvantage of open offices that’s often overlooked is germ exposure. It’s not something that most workers want to think about, but offices are riddled with germs. Some sources claim that the average desk has 400 times more germs than a toilet seat. Whether it’s a desk, phone, computer keyboard or coffee mug, though, germs are everywhere in the office. And with an open layout, workers are more likely to be exposed to these germs. Unfortunately, this means increased rates of worker illness.
Statistics show that lost productivity from worker illness costs businesses roughly $227 billion each year. When workers are sick, they’ll either call out or try to make it through the day. When a worker calls out, you must find a temporary replacement to cover his or her shift. When a sick worker continues working, he or she probably won’t be very productive. Either way, worker illness can hurt your business’s finances.
If you’re going to use an open office design, take measures to minimize the transmission of germs. Placing hand sanitizer throughout your office will allow workers to easily clean their hands. Also known as hand antiseptic, it kills infection-causing germs on contact. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), alcohol-based hand sanitizer is one of the safest and more effective ways to control the risk of transmission.
You can also reduce the risk of transmissible illness in an open office by cleaning dirty surfaces on a regular basis. Things like elevator buttons, phones, doorknobs and vending machine buttons all commonly rank as the dirtiest surfaces in the office. Cleaning them on regular basis, however, will neutralize infection-causing germs and protect workers from illness.
Pro: More Natural Light
Finally, an open layout will increase the amount of natural light in your office. When interior walls are removed, natural light will illuminate your office more effectively. You can pull open the blinds, for instance, so that sunlight will beam through the windows and illuminate your entire office. As sunlight shines through the windows, it’s able to project throughout your entire office thanks to the fundamental design of open offices.
Workers will appreciate the natural light offered by an open office design. Exposure to natural light boosts cognitive function, lowers stress levels and promotes healthy sleeping habits. To take advantage of these benefits, consider an open office design with your window blinds and curtains open.
The Bottom Line on Open Office Designs
Used by roughly seven in 10 businesses, the open office design isn’t going to fade anytime soon. As businesses continue to acknowledge its benefits, it will likely grow even more popular in the years to come. It’s a versatile design that offers a myriad of benefits.
Before switching to an open design in your office, you should consider its advantages and disadvantages. An open office design offers improved worker communications, improved productivity, better Wi-Fi, more natural sunlight, and cost-savings benefits. On the other hand, some workers complain about noise, lack of privacy and germs in open offices. If you’re on the fence and can’t decide if it’s right for your business, try gradually acclimating to an open layout. If you experience negative results, you can easily revert your office back to its previous layout.
President at Office Chairs Unlimited – I have been in the furniture industry for 20 years, and I’m an expert (just ask me) on all things furniture. I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.