How to Design an Open Office Layout
Open office designs have been all the rage over the last 10 to 15 years. They have been thought to facilitate high levels of collaboration and innovation, which are clearly keys to corporate success in these highly competitive, turbulent times. Open office designs are office layouts based on large, open spaces with minimal enclosed offices. They are economical, flexible and can indeed foster high levels of team collaboration and innovation.
However, more recent research has uncovered several critical, unanticipated downsides to open office designs. Depending on the overall design, open office designs can substantially tank work productivity and employee satisfaction. Specifically:
- Privacy and noise: Almost 60% of open office workers complain about privacy issues. Co-workers can hear important work and private conversations, while overall noise levels are high enough to significantly distract from focus on work.
- The second most prevalent employee complaint is visual privacy. Around 30% of employees complain about line-of-sight visual privacy issues.
- Nearly 30% of open office workers complain about the overall high level of distracting noise and hubbub resulting from a significant number of employees conducting business and talking on the telephone or with each other in open office designs. This has a significant negative impact on productivity.
Dr. Tobias Otterbring, Ph.D. of the Service Research Center at Karlstad University in Sweden, has found that “decision-makers should consider the impact of a given office type on employees rather than focusing solely on cost-effective office layout, flexibility, and productivity.”
So, rather than stick with a “one size fits all” approach, consider the following pros and cons of an open office design:
- Open office designs do indeed foster high levels of team cooperation and innovation. Just be careful to determine which work areas and teams do in fact require this kind of work environment.
- Flexibility: Open office environments can be quickly and easily reconfigured at low cost to fit changing work requirements, as opposed to fixed designs.
- Efficiency: Open office environments require fewer air ducting, wiring, and lighting demands in open office layouts than in the usual enclosed office designs.
- Noise: Open office layouts are noisier than traditional closed, cellular office designs.
- Privacy/Security: In an open office layout, work product, conversations and computer screens are far less private than in traditional office designs.
- Loss of Productivity: For certain work functions and personality types, open plans are highly distracting, resulting in lower productivity.
- Employee health & well-being: Both stress and the easy spread of germs due to low or no partitions contribute to increased employee illness, resulting in lower employee productivity and increased absenteeism.
So, how to balance and integrate all these various concerns into an office design that works? Well, the first step is to jettison the notion that an across-the-board, one-size-fits office design will suffice. The key is to understand what kinds of work functions, and what kinds of people, fit more into a more open office design concept versus a more private, more enclosed design concept.
A bit of research
The first step is doing some critical inquiry and research into the nature and environmental demands of the various work functions and people who make up your business. This could be done via a simple survey, or through one-on-one or work group interviews. The basic questions are: what work groups or teams thrive more in an open, collaborative, even noisy environment that fosters a high degree of team interaction, collaboration and innovation? These might be new product development teams or project teams whose work product requires lots of team interaction. On the other hand, what work functions or employees wither in such an environment, and thrive in a work environment of relative quiet, focus, concentration and minimal interruption? This could be HR teams working with sensitive information, analytical or engineering teams, or accounting areas demanding uninterrupted focus, privacy and deep thought. These are two ends of a polar continuum, with other work groups falling somewhere in between.
Design to fit the various environmental requirements
Use movable walls to address noise, security and privacy concerns.
You may not have to resort to old-fashioned, fixed (and expensive) permanent, fixed walls. If quiet and focus-oriented workers or functions push back on your open office design, you don’t have to resort to fixed walls. Instead, investigate options such as attractive, sound-absorbing, movable fabric walls/partitions that separate quiet, high-focus workers from more boisterous, high-interaction teams in a way that delivers much-needed separation without destroying the essence of an open space office design. Or, create separation with tall file cabinets that create separation and sound-dampening while preserving open space.
It will probably be important that, regardless of your overall office design plans, to include “inside-the-box” (enclosed) spaces in your open office design. This will provide detail-focused, more analytical employees with much-needed refuge from the overall noise and hubbub of an open office design plan. It will provide detailed workers with quieter places to work and allow teams to work without distracting nearby staff. Also, create quiet zones, like huddle rooms, private, enclosed offices and conference rooms for privacy-based teams such as legal, HR, finance, engineering and other detailed-analytically-based groups.