Does an Open Concept Office Work?

For this week’s post, I discuss my experience in leading the implementation of one of the first open concept offices in the Ontario government. From my experience, I knew the open concept was a great opportunity to improve employee productivity and engagement. However, when work was underway, it took more than a great concept but a change in infrastructure and culture to make an open office layout work.

What is an Open Concept Office?

An open plan is the generic term used in architectural and interior design for any floor plan which makes use of large, open spaces and minimizes the use of small, enclosed rooms such as private offices.

The History of the Office Cubicle

Frank Lloyd Wright’s open concept removed walls, eliminated rooms and housed the entire workforce in a single space to create a collective and holistic workspace. Through the middle of the 20th century, Wright’s open concept with rows of desks were an organized and efficient option as office work expanded into the 1990s.

In the 1950s, German design group Quickborner, broke up the rows of desks into more organic groupings with partitions for privacy called the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape.”

In 1964, Robert Propst from the American furniture company, Herman Miller, introduced the Action Office System. This consisted of three walls, obtusely angled and moveable. It provided employees their own space and privacy and the flexibility to assume the work position best suited for the task.

What are the Pros of an Open Concept Office?

Better Communication Between Workers
When an office lacks physical barriers, employees are more likely to communicate with one another and work as a team. An increase in communication boosts collaboration between various levels of employees and this includes management.

Cost Effective
There are less overhead costs and, in fact, companies are moving to rent fully furnished private offices with open office layouts. The Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto is a prime example of office space with all amenities a business needs: highspeed internet, common areas and multifunction copiers.

Open work spaces allow you to maximize flexibility without having to commit to a single layout. And as the office grows, you can rearrange the layout for your business needs

Better Aesthetics
An open space can boast cleanliness.

What are the Cons of an Open Concept Office?

Four years ago, Chris Nagele from Wildbit told BBC  that he did what many other technology executives had done before — he moved his team into an open concept office. His staff had been exclusively working from home, but he wanted everyone to be together, bond and collaborate more easily. However, the intended outcome of productivity and efficiency turned turned into his employees and himself being distracted, less productive and unhappy.

With an open office layout, there is an increase in the amount of distractions. You will hear multiple conversations both in person and on the phone and you will notice your coworker’s annoying habits, all of which will draw your attention away from work. Every small distraction can cause us to lose focus for upwards of 20 minutes.

Low Productivity
People have said they never get anything done and must do more work at home: as much as 15 percent less productive.

Health Problems
A study that looked at all the recent studies into the open layout discovered that 90 percent of the studies indicated that an open office space resulted in high levels of stress, conflict and high blood pressure.

Noise Level
Nearly 50 percent of people working in open offices are dissatisfied with their sound.

5 Key Objectives for a Great Space

With my own experience in implementing an open concept in an office of 30 plus employees, I exercised consultations with staff, senior executive and external parties to understand the broad business goals, the workplace culture and what kind of employees they want to attract, as well as how employees work throughout the day and how they use technology.

What I learned from any office renovation is there are five objectives for a great space:

1. Collaboration: To make it easier for staff, teams and management to collaborate on initiatives for better coordination and alignment.

2. Communication: To create an atmosphere where communication is fluid and non-restrictive for creative thinking.

3. Privacy: To leverage equipment and tools for staff to feel a sense of privacy and minimize noise level.

4. Concentration: To create spaces for employees to utilize for individual tasks.

5. Comfort: A space for employees to feel more at ease in the workplace.

Whether it’s noisy personal phone calls or constant interruptions, most of us have been victims of the open office. Share your stories by commenting.

Ashley Cabral  is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Ashley Cabral

Thank you for reading and commenting! While I was processing a lot of information re: open concept environments, I thought to myself: Be simple. And that is how the 5 objectives came to light. But how we implement the 5 objectives will be subjective to each employee. The open concept model cannot be the “best” model or the only model. There needs to be a mixed model of office space to accommodate all types of employees – millennials, Gen Y, introverts, extroverts, etc.

Danielle Poindexter

I love the flexibility of the open office space, but i have to admit that it can be distracting/hard to focus with people sitting so close to me! I tend to utilize the rest of the office space when i really need to focus

Ashley Cabral

Agreed! I worked in an open office space much like a new start up company and I could not concentrate at all! I managed to get my work done after work hours. So in the end of the day I would be in the office from 9am to 7pm. To have an open concept we really need to have the infrastructure in place – IT and actual space!

Mark Stehlin

Thanks Ashley, well written and thought out. In those areas where this design may be a new approach (staff being asked to adjust to new surroundings) the process will require effective change management approaches, patience and teamwork on a new level.