Making Open Office Plans Work

Overcoming Challenges of Open Office Plans

Much has been made of the open office layout trend: both for it and against it. Though the science has always been out on the definitive benefits of the open office design, its popularity has never faltered: an estimated 70 percent of office spaces had adopted the popular cubicle-free floor plan by 2014. The plan is far from perfect, but since it shows no signs of going away, it’s time to focus on ways that it can be improved upon.

Where did the open office layout come from?

The concept of an open office space was created in the 1950s by a team from Hamburg, Germany. It began spreading slowly in the 1960s, not truly catching on until the ‘90s and ‘00s. It was designed to facilitate communication and collaboration while providing a more luminous, spacious environment to spark creativity.

The open office plan also saves companies a lot of money. It allows companies to work with a much smaller real estate footprint, reducing rent, and can also slice utility bills. Simpler furniture makes the initial setup of the space much cheaper. Despite all the theories of the open office’s psychological benefits, this may be the reason the plan has been so enduring.

Challenges of the open office

Myriad studies over the last decade illustrate the challenges and frustrations of the open office design. The levels of noise and frequency of distractions seriously cut into productivity levels, and some data suggests that illness spreads more easily through an open office, resulting in more frequent sick day call-outs.

Most notably, survey after survey reveals that people just don’t like the open office: they find it chaotic and detrimental to maintaining focus. Research indicates that employees’ work suffers from a perceived lack of privacy and a lack of control over their immediate environment as is experienced in an open office.

Solutions to the open office problems

While many of these problems are impossible to avoid, there are office layout ideas and company policy approaches that can help mitigate the challenges.

  • Flexible furniture: If you’re working with a completely open plan, it helps to have movable furniture that can be rearranged at will, allowing employees to reconfigure their immediate surroundings or create an impromptu collaboration spot. Multipurpose office furniture pieces like long tables and many modular desk designs can adapt to the changing needs of the team
  • Availability of private spaces: People don’t need to be in their own office all day, but they do need access to these types of spaces for private conversations or to escape distractions to fully focus on a difficult task. Make sure to offer enough of these small spaces — often called “pods” — that there is always one or two available at a moment’s notice.
  • Relax the schedule: Taking a relaxed approach to work hours both reduces the stress of your employees’ commute and reduces the number of people in the office at a given time. Whether employees prefer to come in early or stay late, a flexible schedule gives them the assurance of having an hour or two of quieter time when the majority of their colleagues haven’t come into the office yet or have already left.

Incorporating these recommendations allows companies to better take advantage of the open office plan’s cost-saving and creativity-boosting benefits while improving employee satisfaction and productivity.

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