The Paradox of Open Offices: What You Should Know

More and more companies – especially startups – are adopting open office floor plans. Startup teams tend to be more nimble, energetic and productive and many people assume that open offices contribute to those benefits. Moreover, for many companies, open offices offer an opportunity to reduce real estate footprint and costs – you can put more people into an open layout. In fact, as more companies embrace remote work, the need for dedicated private offices diminishes.

Despite this trend towards open offices, there’s a growing body of research casting doubt on the benefits of open offices. Researchers have found, for example, that the benefits of easy communication in an open office layout don’t outweigh the lack of privacy, and other disadvantages.

The chart below, from Harvard Business Review, summarizes the biggest complaints about different types of office layouts (based on a study of more than 42,000 U.S. office workers).

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As you can see, people complain the most about open offices and cubicles.

The researchers, Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear of the University of Sydney wrote:

Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction. The open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.

Should you sound the alarm and build private offices for your teams?

No.

I’m a big fan of open offices, but I believe it’s extremely important to create an office plan that overcomes the many real challenges of open offices.

Here are five tips to help you get started:

1. Build a culture of quiet. Many companies encourage (or don’t discourage) open and loud communications in an open office. This builds a dangerous culture. From the start, build a culture of quiet – encourage people to talk in private rooms or common areas, and to use chat tools like Campfire or HipChat.

2. Create collaborative, diverse spaces. Noise, interruption and lack of privacy are real problems in open offices. But these problems can be overcome through diverse areas where people can comfortably collaborate without interrupting others. The best open office plans create plenty of collaborative spaces for people to meet. For example, 37signals has created an open office with small private conference rooms, larger conference rooms, and other common spaces.

At crowdSPRING, we have two collaborative conference rooms, but they’re not ideal. They’re not fully soundproof and can disturb people sitting near those rooms. In our next office, we’ll do a much better job with acoustics.

3. Create spaces that work for your team. Many companies mistakenly implement open office plans that mimic other companies. “We want to be more like Google or Facebook” is great – but your team might work very differently and might require a very different office plan. Think about your goals and how an open office would help you achieve those goals. Consider certain functions on your team (sales, customer service, etc.) that need to be on the phone throughout the day and find ways to minimize distractions to and by those groups.

4. Don’t silo people in open offices. Many companies – especially larger companies – silo people by building tall partitions between desks. This gives people a false sense of acoustic privacy and ultimately increases the overall noise of the entire office. If you need some physical partitions, make them short enough to allow people to see each other – and consider acoustically treated partitions to help with noise.

5. Build a top-down, bottom-up open office culture. For open offices to succeed, managers should be working in the open office, not in private offices. Not only would this help managers to learn more about their own companies, but it would send a clear signal to the entire team about the company’s commitment to an open office plan.

What other tips can you suggest to help people succeed with open offices?

 

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