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Open Offices: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Articles and blogs decrying the use of open offices are as plentiful as the powerhouse tech companies that deploy them. One oft-cited study estimates that 70% of offices in the US use low partitions or no partitions at all. Instead, they choose to place employees in a large shared space.

However, employees aren’t always thrilled about this new trend. Open offices can make younger employees feel as though they aren’t trusted by management. This creates animosity between different levels of the company in an already tense social and economic environment. Some older employees, on the other hand, find themselves yearning for the “good old days” of cubicles. They complain that they didn’t realize how good things were until they were forced into an open office.

For all the points that naysayers of open offices make, there are clearly benefits to the layout. Many managers lean towards open offices for a few reasons. First, you can save money by using less space and cutting out cubicle expenses. Second, they let managers keep an eye on the floor at all times. Finally, open offices are supposed to boost collaboration and creativity across the floor. It’s also hard to ignore the popularity of the layout at hugely successful tech giants like Facebook and Google.

Open offices aren’t going to work in every situation, but for domains where collaboration is essential they can be a lifesaver. Here are my recommendations on doing open offices right.

Open Offices: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Understand why open offices draw complaints

Ask 10 different employees what they don’t like about open offices and you’ll get 10 different answers. These range from complaints about coworkers’ dietary habits, personalities, and hygiene. With a little work we can boil it all down to a handful of issues that employees will have with your open office scheme.

Lack of privacy

This may seem like a strange thing to bring up in an office. Why does someone need privacy at work? Suspicious managers might be quick to wonder what a reclusive employee has to hide, but often concerns about privacy are much more mundane than anything you might dream up. For many introverts (and extroverts as well), a reasonable amount of auditory and visual privacy are necessary for them to perform at their best, retaining the highest amount of focus throughout the day. This mental drain can lead to a physical decline for workers, leading to lower productivity in the long run.

Distractions

Who are you most likely to turn to if you’re stuck or unsure about what to do about a problem with your work? The highest performer at your job that you know, of course. All the better if this person is sitting within indoor shouting distance. This is where the trouble comes in, though. If the highest performers in the office are interrupted whenever others need help, their performance will fall.

In turn, managers will lose their strongest assets on the floor just to keep the weaker employees afloat. In more closed office layouts high performers can close their doors or hide in their cubicles when they’re in the zone, choosing only to offer help during team meetings and the like. Not so in an open office, where these high performers appear accessible always and everywhere.

Hygiene

Here’s another one that many managers don’t consider, but it can still cause huge problems for your productivity. One study found that workers in open office layouts took 62% more sick days than workers in classic layouts. Further research has confirmed that it’s open offices themselves that are making workers ill. Germs spread more readily throughout when employees are constantly in close proximity to one another and virtually all spaces in the office are shared

Now that we understand the problems that arise in open office workplaces, it’s easier to see how we can retain the financial and collaborative benefits of an open office while addressing employee complaints.

Give employees options

Making small individual offices available for employees who work best in those environments can help you get the most out of your floor. At worst, a storage closet can be streamlined and turned into a functioning private office space.

Giving employees the option to work from home a few times a week is another possibility that’s catching on fast. Doing this is a huge help to employees who work best in private spaces. It also gives parents the flexibility needed to maintain a normal family life while keeping up on important work from home or a child’s soccer game.

Liven things up

A dull cubicle makes for one dreary employee. A dull open office kills the vibe for your entire team. It sounds a bit corny, but bright colors can be a huge help here. I’d avoid stereotypical motivational posters, but posters highlighting your company’s specialties and achievements can do a lot to build a team spirit. You can also think about how employees would decorate their cubicles and put up those decorations writ large. Personal photos are common, so hanging pictures taken by members of your own workforce can be a cheap and personal way to give some spirit to the office. An employee photo gallery can also contribute to a sense of office comradery.

Keep it clean

“Employees must wash their hands after using the bathroom,” sounds like a sign that you’d see in a fast food restaurant bathroom, but it wouldn’t be out of place in a conventional office. Half of the commonly touched areas in the office will be infected by lunchtime if an employee comes in sick. After that, all it takes is for someone to rub their eyes or handle their lunch and you’ve got a small epidemic on your hands. The best thing to do here is keep employees up-to-date on the standards of preventive care. Even small reminders for employees to wash their hands can help you avoid a lot of this trouble.

Image: Casually dressed colleagues talking in an open plan office


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Nick Cesare is a writer and researcher based out of Idaho. Nick writes about all sorts of things, but he's mostly interested in workplace efficiency and engagement. When he's not busy in the world of online content he enjoys mountain biking and rock climbing in the Idaho mountains.

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