An Open Office requires some “Closed Doors”



In a blog post published by IFMA earlier this year, author Brady Mick notes how open trends in today’s office design—while great for collaboration—may be costing businesses the big ideas they need to thrive:


“In the first decade of the 21st century the push for more collaborative workplaces gave rise to open space designs that remain in most businesses today. Yet, as the focus of work shifts to innovation, openness is taking a toll on the people at work…Today’s workers have lost their ability and their time to think while in the office; mitigating a migration out of assigned workspaces. As employees disengage, businesses suffer as well. In truth, regardless of the job, or industry, everyone needs time to process information, research and investigate.”


The science behind these problems is fairly well established, too. In a fabulous 2014 Washington Post piece (a highly recommended reading), author Lindsey Kaufman gives a striking overview of how open floor plans are affecting employees:


“Employers are getting a false sense of improved productivity. A 2013 study found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of visual privacy…In a previous study, researchers concluded that ‘the loss of productivity due to noise distraction…was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.’”


An additional incentive for open spaces (at least from management’s end) is the ability to better police “time wasting” through fear of always being watched—a concept which dates back to 1786 when Jeremy Bentham first conceived the panopticon. Of course, layering concern upon employees (who may use a wide array of unique methods to effectively complete their tasks) also carries its own risks, including the stifling of creativity.


None of this is to suggest that open floor plans are without their merit—especially when they’re applied for the right purposes. However, these outcomes do raise the question of whether employees in such settings are being given sufficient “alone time” to digest work and process new solutions (certainly, it’s a rare and unusual trait to do your best work among a myriad of distractions), and whether the fear of being watched leads to improved productivity or simply an anxious mindset.


If your office does implement this type of floor plan, we recommend acknowledging the inherent tradeoffs of such an arrangement, and emphasizing availability of private space for those who need it on any given day (or, perhaps even occasional telecommuting).


The solution: Open your office and simultaneously close it at the same time. Culture IQ gives an excellent list of pros and cons for the “open office dilemma,” noting that there is a blatantly lack of privacy, but creative collaboration and better socialization is generated from these spaces. Check this out as a “best of both worlds” scenario; make sure your open office has the following: 


  • Seating clusters for collaboration, along with standing and sitting work stations
  • Separate open spaces, such as a café for coffee breaks and meals, and a laboratory area with white boards, sofas, and worktables
  • Closed-off spaces for quiet tasks and meetings, such as a sound-free library space and conference rooms with glass walls for semi-privacy


This is our first post on our discussion involving “landscapes of innovative workspaces.” Have you already experienced a well-balanced open office space? 


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