Facts vs Fads: Open Office Layouts
Open offices are immensely popular right now. You could say that they’re a fad, but that would be implying that the open office layout is a blip on the radar, soon to be a thing of the past. Although there’s no way to glimpse the future of office layouts, it seems unlikely that open offices are about to go the way of bell bottom jeans or poodle skirts.
The popularity of open offices began in the 1960’s in Germany, and later the office design migrated to the United States. It’s said that by the year 2000, around two-thirds of offices used open designs. Open designs are now so popular that even many modern homes have open layouts.
The continued popularity of open office layouts will probably come down to a few simple questions. Namely, what are the strengths of open office layouts? Can open offices be improved upon? How can innovative furnishings and creative layouts benefit businesses with open office designs?
Open Office Layouts: Strengths and Weaknesses
To address this topic effectively, one needs to understand what is both good and bad about open office layouts. The idea behind an open office is simple: offices without walls encourage collaboration and communication between employees. Open office layouts force employees to speak with one another and cultivate productive professional relationships. Collaboration between employees results in the germination of ideas and innovation.
Open office layouts frequently feature long rows of benches, few divisions between workspaces, tall ceilings, and large windows. They’re beautiful, in their way, and the activity alone is energizing. On a typical workday, a camera shot of an open office might show employees in all stages of work. Talking on the phone, standing together at the whiteboard, walking quickly from here to there, and a lone employee staring dreamily out the window, thinking quiet thoughts. It’s almost romantic.
It’s no coincidence that many of these offices are located in converted warehouses, and the types of businesses that frequently opt for open designs are startup companies. This type of office design is ideal for small companies on a tight budget and in need of good ideas.
Still, there are downsides to open offices, and the complaints are very legitimate.
- Open offices are noisy.
- There’s no privacy.
- It’s hard to stare out the window and think quiet thoughts (contrary to the description above) when your neighbors are engaged in a productive discussion at a whiteboard 15 feet away.
Many open offices are really good for one thing (communication and collaboration), but fail to take into account the fact that employees don’t want or need to collaborate with one another for 8 hours out of every workday. There’s a time to be quietly productive, a time to brainstorm alone, a time to get together with a partner, and a time for working in small groups.
The ideal office layout will address all of these needs. Instead of throwing employees together in a loud mishmash, the ideal office will have a palette of places for all stages of work.
Designing a Successful Open Office
Space division is critical for the success of this type of layout. Employees must be able to retreat to their own thoughts, with their own private space–and noise reduction is only one component of this. With creative furnishings, open offices can achieve their goals and still give employees the space they need to work privately.
- Use noise and line-of-sight-reducing furnishings. Tall chairs and couches that cover the heads of the users can reduce office noise, stop conversation travel and create a sense of privacy.
- Utilize movable barriers that create temporary “rooms.” Movable screens and even office planters create a sense of a “room,” where employees can work privately.
- Erect clear or translucent walls. Glass and frosted glass walls create actual barriers that ensure privacy, without creating a psychological barrier between employees.
- Give employees a sense of “mine.” Divisions between desks give employees a sense of their own space. These personal boundaries are important for making employees comfortable at their office.
Perhaps more important than erecting actual physical barriers between employees, is the reduction of line-of-sight within the layout. Grid-like layouts allow people to see from one end of the room to the other, creating an assembly-line-esque feeling wherein everyone can see what everyone else is doing. On the other hand, organic layouts enhance the feeling of division between different work zones, and also provide some sound reduction.
Companies that successfully utilize open layouts can improve productivity, employee satisfaction, and job performance. In addition, open layouts can encourage the innovation that makes startups successful. Companies that use these layouts simply need to give careful thought to their office design in order to make the layouts successful.