The debate of open offices vs. closed ones has been a hot topic for years. And even though a definitive conclusion in favor of either has never been reached, open offices have somehow become the norm.

These days, you can find open offices everywhere, regardless of company size or industry. But does this mean they’re good for us?

We’re going to consider many workplace factors and evaluate if each is a Pro or Con in the case of open offices. Feel free to skip to the ones that interest you the most.

Company culture and office relations

This is an important factor. When all employees of a company, managers and managees alike, share the same open space, disadvantages of organizational hierarchy bear no leverage on relations among employees. If you share the same physical space with your manager and your manager’s manager, everyone is more likely to become friends than they are to just remain boss and employee.

This is important in creating a sense of community and belonging. The whole company would be one big team working for the same purpose. And that is something almost all majorly successful organizations count on.

Open offices are said to improve office relations, but is that completely true? #NoMoreOpenOfficesClick To Tweet

All of this does happen but to an extent. But what actually happens is, as recent research confirms, that working in open offices actually makes workers less social. This is a direct result of the abundant distraction and continuous lack of privacy in the open office as we discuss later on. As employees try harder to focus and get work done, they tend to work from quiet places in the office (inevitably making the choice of who gets to use them a matter of dispute), work remotely if possible, or most of the time isolate themselves in their own bubble with headphones on. So much for better office relations!

Gains: Better relationships are automatically built within a company.

Losses: These relationships take their toll on productivity and work quality.

Final evaluation: Con

 

Communication

open offices informal meeting

Open offices make communication much easier. Instead of wasting time writing long emails and scheduling and attending formal meetings, employees can just talk. For example, when GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, moved workers from cubicles and offices to open-plan work tables, “email traffic dropped by more than 50%, while decision making accelerated by some 25% because workers were able to meet informally instead of volleying emails from offices and cubes,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The flip side of this is the incessant interruption. Think about it. You wouldn’t be able to give any task as little as 25 minutes without a colleague asking you about the status of that last report, an important question, yes, but obviously not important enough to lose your train of thought over.

Gains: Communication and hence decision-making are more efficient.

Losses: The never-ending communication negatively affects workplace productivity.

Final evaluation: Con

 

Cost

open offices save cost money wallet

Let’s be very clear here: open offices cost less. The fewer the walls a company has to put up, the less the money it’ll spend. The company will also spend less on office equipment (employees can just share the copy machine and printer), and a central cooling and heating system which is cheaper is just the icing on the cake.

Gains: The company saves a lot of money.

Losses: The money saved might just be paid somewhere else, but we’ll get into that later.

Final evaluation: Pro

 

Productivity

Another very important factor is productivity. The main function of an office is to enable people working in it to do great work efficiently. So how did open offices do regarding this?

It turns out productivity in open offices takes a big hit. The situation is even more drastic when the work is of the creative nature or if an employee can function with only a limited amount of stimulation around because they’re introverted.

Relentless noises and their effects, difficult-to-block visual distractions, constant interruptions (both external and self-interruptions), complete lack of privacy, and decreasing personal space negatively affect employees’ attention span and focus, resulting in loss of an average of 86 minutes every day according to research from Ipsos and the Workspace Futures Team of Steelcase. This translates into less output and lower quality and that’s a huge cost for any business to bear.

Gains: None.

Losses: Impaired productivity at the employee level directly leads to impaired performance across the whole organization.

Final evaluation: Con

 

Well-being

open offices stress well being stressed man

Not being able to do work at the office only adds to other sources of stress at work. From having to deal with loud colleagues all the way up to office politics, the list of stress sources at the office goes on, meaning employees’ emotional well-being is at a greater risk at open offices.

As for physical well-being, it’s only a matter of time till stress-related problems start to impair employees’ health. And if that doesn’t do it, that colleague who caught the flu last week and kept coming to the office anyway will certainly get the job done. Research confirms this by showing that employees working in open offices are 62% more likely to take sick days. All this does is aggravate the already-serious issue of impaired productivity.

Gains: None.

Losses: Impaired employee well-being affects productivity negatively and hence leads to impaired performance across the whole organization also.

Final evaluation: Con

 

Number of employees

With fewer walls comes more space. This means more people can fit into the same space, a plus if the company is quickly expanding. We will discuss later whether that affects employees’ sense of their own space and their control over it.

Gains: The company can fit a huge number of people.

Losses: A crowded workplace is not ideal for productivity or well-being.

Final evaluation: Pro

 

Supervision and monitoring

There’s no doubt that monitoring employees is much easier when they’re all sitting in one place with their manager and that could actually improve performance. But we have to ask, is this the kind of employees we can trust with work, the kind that’s only working because they’re being monitored? A smart employer knows better.

open offices supervision monitoring employees

On the other hand, an employee with very high self-motivation and sense of responsibility would interpret this as lack of trust. In an anonymous survey by William Belk with more than 700 respondents from different industries, the results indicated that 58% of high-performance employees (HPEs) need more private spaces for problem-solving and 54% of HPEs find their office environment “too distracting.”

And a creative employee would be restricted. According to Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, creativity decreases in open offices because people who feel “watched” take fewer risks and therefore innovate less.

The result: An employer could be turning off great employees and missing out on their exceptional work.

Gains: Open offices enable much easier employee monitoring and supervision.

Losses: The company could lose great employees and miss out on their great output.

Final evaluation: Con

 

Personalization and employee control

Open offices mean the same work environment for all employees. This means the same temperature for everyone, same furniture for everyone, and same view for everyone. So employees in this case completely lack the ability to personalize their workspaces. They cannot adjust the temperature or arrange office furniture the way they want. They also have no control over the mess and clutter of other people or even the overlapping smells of coffee and food.

An employee’s perceived lack of control around the office has been shown to affect well-being and also productivity. It all keeps coming back to decreased productivity, doesn’t it?

No employee control = no good output. #NoMoreOpenOfficesClick To Tweet

Gains: None.

Losses: The sense of individuality is completely lost in the open office environment and that directly hurts work performance.

Final evaluation: Con

 

Workplace and work satisfaction

Dr. Vinesh Oommen, from the Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, Australia, along with a group of Australian scientists reviewed recent studies into open offices and found that feelings of insecurity, a lack of status, and a high turnover rate were found in open-plan offices. Overall, workplace satisfaction was lower than in closed offices. Also, perceived job performance was lower in open offices.

Gains: None.

Losses:  Lower overall satisfaction in open offices has been scientifically proven.

Final evaluation: Con

 

The only conclusion we can reach here is that open offices don’t live up to all the hype surrounding them.

 

So why do we still have open offices?

Our guess is that because all major and infamously successful companies like Google and Facebook have them. These companies present great models to follow but that doesn’t mean what works for them works for everyone else.

Open offices do help with socialization as well. There are also the factors of cost and number of employees. Open offices are still much cheaper. And not only can they accommodate a larger number of employees, but they also promise ease of expansion.

But we find ourselves wondering: is that enough?

We don't need to blindly follow in famous companies' footsteps. #NoMoreOpenOfficesClick To Tweet

 

What can we do about this?

Till the powers that be are convinced that open offices just don’t work, here are some solutions that can help fight against all the disadvantages.

  • Taking into consideration work type

Don’t make your writers and your HR people, for example, work in the exact same environment. The former require quiet, focus, and mostly individual work to tap into their creativity while the latter require a lot of teamwork. So a company should match the workspace with the work needs.

A company can also ask the employees which they prefer. At least this way, only a fraction of the people will not be satisfied instead of almost the whole office.

 

  • Establishing hybrid offices

open offices hybrid

This is a great solution that a lot of companies have already implemented. Hybrid offices combine the benefits of both open and closed spaces. This model includes all your usual shared bullpen spaces while also including some private meeting rooms, quiet areas, and isolated cubicles. This way everyone at the office has the chance to choose where to sit depending on the task at hand.

In such case, providing company-wide communication tools (e.g., Workplace, Yammer, etc.) can help in making communication easier without negatively affecting the work itself.

Hybrid offices make it possible for employees to choose where to work. #NoMoreOpenOfficesClick To Tweet

 

  • Offering flexible work options

open offices remote flexible female working coffee shop

This is the global trend nowadays and we here at WUZZUF follow it, so except for the 20% of employees on whose jobs smooth workflow depends (office admins, finance, etc.), the major 80% of WUZZUF employees are offered flexible options.

Offering the option to work remotely or choose one’s own hours can help a lot in alleviating the pain of having to work in an open office. It empowers employees and gives them control and that directly reflects on their work.

 

  • Establishing rules and signals

open offices rules no stop red traffic light

If your company doesn’t follow any of the above and you’re stuck working in an open office, then establishing rules and signals is your answer. Agree with the people you’re sharing a space with on certain rules, like

  • silent hours,
  • headphones on = please don’t disturb,
  • phones in silent mode at all times.

 

We’ll leave you this final thought: We don’t know if you dislike open offices as much as we do, but here’s to hoping open offices die out soon.

Do you agree with the pros and cons we mentioned? Tell us what you think and let us know about your experience working in an open office in the comments below.

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