The Open Office Layout: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

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Although the public sector typically falls into the laggard category of adopting workplace trends, the open office layout is something that just cannot be avoided nowadays. According to a study conducted by Emerald Insight, over 70% of all offices have switched from cube farms to the open office layout. So whether you like it or not, government employees have to learn to adapt to this new shift in workspace configuration.

So what are the pros and cons of an open office layout? Check out the tidbits below to find out:

Pros:

  • Fosters a Symbolic Sense of Organizational Mission: Similar to the Situation Room, your team is all in one central location and working to accomplish whatever task the team has been assigned to complete.
  • Easier to Receive Instantaneous Feedback or Information: There’s nothing better than swiveling around in your office chair and saying “Hey Terry, what’s our status on crunching those numbers?”
  • Save Time Traveling Around the Office: With an open office layout, you save time tracking down your sought after coworkers or dashing around the building to make a meeting; all of these  are generally nearby.
  • Let the Sunshine In: Instead of being cooked up in your three wall birdcage, an open office layout allows for easier access to windows and natural light.
  • Joining the Conversation: Being around the situation allows you to have better situational awareness of what’s what with the various programs and projects being completed in your office. Remember, knowledge is power.

Cons:

  • Lack of Privacy: Most of the time it may feel like there’s nowhere to run and hide. That’s because there’s in fact nowhere to run and hide.
  • Girl/Boy Interrupted: An open office layout makes it incredibly easy for anyone to walk right up to your work station and disrupt your work flow.
  • Decreased Productivity: Even though being in a cube may feel confining, employees are still less distracted by external stimuli versus the numerous distractions that come along with an open office layout (noise, side conversations, work station drive-bys etc.).
  • Too Much Sitting: Having direct access to your coworkers may cause you to be less inclined to get up and walk around. Try to avoid this as according to a study conducted by the University of California, San Diego, sitting for too long is linked to high blood pressure, obesity, bad cholesterol and too much belly fat.

After looking at the good and bad of an open office layout, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the bad. Read through these suggested remedies to alleviate some of the negatives of open office mania:

  • Strategic Breaks: When the noise gets going maybe you should too. This is an opportune time for restroom breaks, face-to-face chats, coffee breaks, water cooler breaks, all kinds of necessary breaks.
  • Earbuds Are Your Friends: Having an open office layout may allow for a great reason to purchase some Beats by Dre to cancel out any distracting noise floating around the office.
  • Get In Earlier or Stay Later: Depending on the schedule of your office mates, it may be a good idea to either come in earlier or come in later then stay later. This should enable you to be in the office when it is quieter and easier to focus on any concentration-intensive tasks.
  • Alternate Work Schedule/Telework Champions: A good way to avoid the cons of an open office layout is…to be in the office less! If your employer offers an alternate work schedule or teleworking, take advantage of this and get away from some of the distractions associated with open office configurations.
  • Communication is Key: If your office-mates are being a little too boisterous or a meeting is getting a little too rowdy, then have no shame in poking your head around the corner and kindly asking them to lower the volume. Most of the time they may be not aware of their noise level.

So the moral of the story is to learn to adapt to this growing trend in office life. Please feel free to leave comments below on your experience with open office layouts.

Ryan Rosado is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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17 Comments

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Profile Photo Patrick Fiorenza

Great post, Ryan. Harvard Business Review had a great spotlight on the open office a few months ago. Here’s a few links to check out if you didn’t check the articles. The open collaborative element is important, but as HBR notes, privacy and solicitude are just as important for productivity. Employees, and managers, need to be flexible to accommodate different work styles, and there really needs to be spots for privacy, can be a big hit on productivity, adds stress and long, unnecessary hours to folks workday. Here’s some good HBR stuff to check out:

Transparency Trap: https://hbr.org/2014/10/the-transparency-trap

Balance We & Me: https://hbr.org/2014/10/balancing-we-and-me-the-best-collaborative-spaces-also-support-solitude/ar/1

Thanks for sharing!

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Mark Hammer

About 15 months ago, my organization at the time moved from cubicles to “workplace 2.0”, which was a more open concept, motivated principally by a desire to reduce real-estate footprint costs, but justified by arguments regarding increased productivity. Three months ago, I moved to a temporary assignment in another agency and now have an actual office, with walls and a door, for the first time in welll….since I joined the federal workforce. The acquisition of an office is not related to any sort of promotion or even distributed differentially among staff – EVERYBODY has one.

So what did I notice about the three different milieus? Well, for starters, the first several months after switching to open-concept are typified by a tendency toward dead silence and non-interaction, as people try to figure out how much chatter and interaction is acceptable to co-workers. Those who work with confidential materials will invariably find themselves in locations where the whole world can view what’s on their screen, and need relocation. And folks with chemical sensitivities, or a propensity to migraines, will also need relocating. Once all of that settles down, the gabbing begins, and noise levels start to ratchet up. Is there greater collaboration? I hadn’t noticed any, but then every work unit is different in some ways, so there may have been some benefit to others.

What I have been waiting to find out about is the use of sick leave. When there are walls separating oneself and the person in the next cubicle hacking and coughing, one is perhaps troubled by the noise, but unperturbed by the thought of contagion. When the walls are gone, it would seem that this is followed by stronger recommendations from coworkers to stay-home-until-well. BUt I’ll let the data talk for itself when it rolls in.

Having switched from wide open to walled offices with doors, I haven’t really noticed any decline in interaction with coworkers. Quite frankly, if you spend your days facing a screen, you can’t really tell what goes on behind you, so walls and doors have’t suddenly left me wondering if so-and-so was in today, because I usually didn’t know anyway.

More acutely, though, I miss having a common lounge area where relaxed discourse can happen amongst people who work on different projects, and interaction is facilitated moreso than by whether there are enclosed offices, walls, or no walls.

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Profile Photo Hannah Moss

Awesome post on both the positives and (less often thought about) negatives of open offices.

I also love the tips. I might add that it helps to have an office policy, or at least an informal statement from management, about behavior expectations in the office. That way, people who might feel less comfortable asking to work from home or interrupting a loud meeting will feel like they have a bit of support to back them up.

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Profile Photo Ryan Rosado

Glad you enjoyed the post. I was trying to be objective while also giving people a way to make the best of the situation (if they dislike the open office layout). I think your suggestion about office policy being displayed/verbalized is another great remedy :). Thanks!

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Judy Fearnside

Sitting in cubes still allows for hearing everything that goes on around you. If even one co-worker conducts personal business while at work, then everyone in the office knows that co-worker’s personal business. Knowing a co-workers health and money problems is not a good thing, and it makes for an comfortable situation! Definite rules are needed to cover what is acceptable (and unacceptable) behavior.

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Judy Fearnside

Sitting in cubes still allows for hearing everything that goes on around you. If even one co-worker conducts personal business while at work, then everyone in the office knows that co-worker’s personal business. Knowing a co-workers health and money problems is not a good thing, and it makes for an uncomfortable situation! Definite rules are needed to cover what is acceptable (and unacceptable) behavior.

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Online Commenter

One of the worst concepts ever. Objectively speaking, I don’t see ANY benefits (except maybe to some micro-managers about having control over those they supervise). Lots of noise, no privacy and no increased productivity. I think it will lead to more sick days and people asking to work form home. Does not work for those who have jobs of any substance, where quiet time is required to read and digest materials, and think while organizing and planning. The set up is inherently distracting. And no privacy at all for those that do need to take care of private business during work hours (we all do).

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Caroldavison

I is reasonable for the taxpayer to want us to work in the smallest footprint that is still productive. However the concept that it increases collaboration for us to work in an open office doesn’t stand with me. Rats, I mean people shoved into a tiny living spaces increases stress, which increases resentment, which undermines relationships and performance. Anyone intelligent enough to work for the government know how to step out of an office to confer with their colleague. I’m an introvert that is noise sensitive. My coworkers’ idle conversations, phone calls, and music distract me from production so I thrive on privacy. Unfortunately I’m also chemically sensitive and visited my doctor to apply for a reasonable accommodation to be away from the chemical warfare of perfume, hairspray, burnt popcorn, oil defusers, air freshener, nail polish and remover, etc. on my health. I assume that when I get sick from exposure, my co-workers are going to want me to stay home. I’m going to ask to telework instead.

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Emma Antunes

What’s interesting about the tips on how to work in an open environment is that they’re actually about how to tune out and successfully avoid others – headphones, changing your schedule, telework. If people have to do this to be productive, doesn’t this defeat the purpose of the open plan in the first place? What I’ve been reading about is that the open plan is great for junior employees and for the boss – they can get answers as they need them – not so much for the middle or senior person who is interrupted all the time. I’m not saying everyone needs their own office, but sharing an office with a couple of other people is a far cry from sharing it with your entire organization. You can get a lot of the benefits by having more shared spaces people use every day – multiple, small informal meeting spaces instead of a conference room, kitchen/galley areas where people can also eat their lunches, spaces designed around a common hallway so you run into each other frequently.

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Profile Photo Ryan Rosado

Thanks for your feedback Emma! The solutions I provided are ways to try to make the best of the situation if one finds themselves uncomfortable in an open office layout. I do think your points are valid though in which demographic and organizations are most suitable for office space configurations.

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Mark Hammer

In 1973-74, I was working as a research assistant on what was, at that time, the largest research study that had been undertaken examining the social development of kids whose mothers worked. Myself and my co-worker surveyed and interviewed some 5000 kids and their parents in and around the Montreal area.

One of the things I developed over that year, was an uncanny ability to identify children that were attending school in open classrooms; something that was in fashion at the time, The kids who were in traditional closed classrooms were far more cooperative, and compliant with requests, but very distractible. The kids from the open classrooms (similar in many ways to an open concept office) were certainly more able to focus in the midst of chaos around them, but were far less cooperative.

Workspaces do have an impact on qualitative aspects of our behaviour, our concentration, and cognition.

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Annie

There are several chat programs available where teams can communicate in the “Hey you” style without interrupting the work flow. You can finish a thought, make a note, etc.. before responding to the urgent need. This fad of open space needs to die a terrible death. It’s amazing anyone gets anything done when they are constantly interrupted. Progress is measured in the work accomplished, not by being seen in the office.

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Bruce A. Bateman

As a manager, I’ve found the best route is to allow staff to choose. We have a space large enough to accommodate all without being crowded together like sardines. Within that space I allow each team member to situate themselves where they want and in a manner that suites them best. What has evolved is a semi-open floor plan with most workers around the perimeter looking in toward the center where we have assembled an open lounge/meeting area. Some have decided to use cubicle walls to set their lateral space apart. Some have not. Frankly, I don’t care how they set themselves up as long as the work gets done and the individual staff members are comfortable in their working environment. In my view, open office or cubed privacy should be an individual decision. Team morale is high when options like these are not forced on the workforce.

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