When I started working at my first job after college in the mid-1980s, the typical office was made up of cubicles, where every employee had his or her own private space. Offices have changed a lot since then. Now open-plan spaces, where workers share desks in large rooms without any barriers or cubicles blocking their views, seem to be everywhere.
Many large companies — from Apple to co-working locations, such as WeWork — have replaced ugly and claustrophobic little rooms with bright, open-space areas that offer wide views and a more team-oriented environment. Open-plan offices promised to help employees collaborate better and be more productive, improve workers’ health, reduce construction costs, and provide more flexibility as the workplace changes.
But is an open plan office better? A number of recent studies say the opposite.
A couple of 2018 surveys by Harvard Business School researchers of open-plan offices at Fortune 500 companies found that more than 70 percent of employees actually spent less time in face-to-face interactions, and instead used more email and instant messaging. A 2013 study of more than 42,000 U.S. office workers found that those who had private offices were the “most satisfied” with their work space, while many open-plan workers expressed dissatisfaction with their privacy and frustration about controlling noise and other distractions.
Last year, a poll of more than 1,000 working adults in the U.S. revealed a strong (76 percent) dislike of open offices, with almost half of the respondents lamenting the lack of privacy and one-third saying they “simply can’t concentrate.” Geoffrey James, a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine and a critic of open-plan offices, cites other research that seems to point to the design trend causing a “productivity disaster” that “turns the workplace into a highly toxic environment that’s making employees sick and even damaging their ability to think.”
So does this mean your company should start enclosing its people in isolated and lonely floor-to-ceiling cubicles? Maybe. But don’t count out open-plan offices just yet. Some small-business owners say they’ve been good for their business.
Sandy Smith, president of public relations firm Smith Publicity Inc., in Cherry Hill, likes her open-office design — and so do her employees. “The benefit of our open area is being able to share knowledge and creative insights to our work, talk through problems or frustrations, and share laughs, trust, and bonding among our team,” she says. “When we expanded our offices a few years back, we asked our team, and they opted for and helped design an open space without dividing walls.”
“Having an open office plan was really out of necessity,” says Mike Graham, the president and CEO of Smart Vent Products Inc. a Pitman company that provides flood-proofing systems. “We started with one person and added more slowly. As we grew, this plan became a way to promote teamwork and bang out people’s problems fast. We moved from critiquing the calls to helping each other. It was common for someone to yell out, ‘This guy needs help in Wildwood. Who do we know?’ Boom! We get the person the answer immediately, and that task is done.”
Both Smith and Graham admit that the design approach has its drawbacks. They say that some employees have raised concerns over noises and activities that make it harder to concentrate and that the setup makes it harder to have private or sensitive conversations. There are battles over the right temperature settings, the best lighting and — of course — that one employee who insists on eating those annoying crunchy snacks. Those challenges, however, are not insurmountable. “It’s important to compromise,” Smith said.
Smith also had other advice for a happy office, such as having specific areas for where people can go for private phone calls, encouraging employees to speak up to their managers if they’re dealing with an open-space issue, and considering more work-from-home flexibility. And if you’re considering an open office plan, it’s best to include your team in designing the work space and make sure to periodically talk to your team members to reassess any concerns.
I admit that I would personally hate to work in an open-space environment. I’m an introvert; my company is virtual, and all of my employees work from home. That model has been successful for us, and although it’s very cost-efficient, it does come with its drawbacks — the biggest being our loss of camaraderie and idea-sharing because we rarely spend time together as a team.
The bottom line is that open-plan offices may — as some studies and James claim — be counterproductive and “create toxicity.” But then again — as Smith and Graham believe — they could better promote a happier work environment where employees bond, talk through problems, and share laughs.
So don’t write off the idea just because of a few naysayers. An open-plan office may very well work for your company. Or maybe it won’t. Or maybe — like some of my clients — a better solution would be a more hybrid environment that includes both open spaceand cubicles. In the end, it’s really what’s best suited to your company’s culture.
Gene Marks is a certified public accountant and the owner of the Marks Group, a technology and financial management consulting firm in Bala Cynwyd.