Do you like being able to smell your co-worker’s left over tuna noodle surprise? When you’re crashing on a deadline, do you really need to hear a fellow employee grumble about yet another bad online dating experience? Well, that’s often how it works in an open office environment.
Originally, the open office space gained popularity in Europe and slowly seeped its way across the Atlantic into the American workplace. Companies and facilities managers saw benefits in communication and interaction between their employees. Successful and well-known companies like Google, Microsoft, and Campbell’s Soup ditched their cubicles and claimed their open offices provided a more creative, collaborative, and, most of all, successful work environment.
In a recent study done by the International Management Facility Association, 70 percent of American employees work in open-plan offices. In 2013, it would not be far-fetched to say that the open-workspace is the norm, or that the trend has certainly gained popularity.
However, a growing backlash to openness is gaining traction as people question whether the perceived benefits actually live up to their expectation. The biggest complaints say an open workplace is too noisy and lacks privacy, and that a wide-open environment has hindered an individual’s ability to focus on single projects. Critics also point out that some people are simply introverts, and generally prefer to have some degree of privacy to be fully productive.
The pros and cons of each office style are clearly in the conscience of American business leaders. It is also an important consideration for employees. So, what is the answer? As with many challenges, there is no simple solution, but there are ways to address the issue.
The most important aspect of setting up an office space is allowing employees to have their own space to get their work done. It is also important to create an environment where collaboration happens naturally, but if people need a place to focus on their work, the work environment should be designed to accommodate that.
When offices transitioned from closed to open space, the biggest change was the furniture. Office and cubicle walls came down. Employees’ desks became picnic-style tables, and the boardroom table felt more like a living room. To swing the pendulum back slightly to address the needs of those who prefer somewhat closed workspaces, a solution can again be found through furniture.
Most commercial furniture manufacturers are creating new products to adjust to the open-space backlash. Sofas with high backs and desks with high panels create an environment for heads-down work, but don’t entirely cut off the ability for easy, natural collaboration. Such solutions are the optimal furniture pieces to keep an open environment, yet allow a sense of enclosure that can provide a measure of privacy and help facilitate productivity.
To set up an office that works well, the environment should mirror the company’s personality. Not every company needs overriding communication between employees. Some workers, especially those who have had jobs with offices, may still desire some privacy and find it instrumental to maintain productivity.
The open office was an experiment that had positive outcomes. But there are still benefits to the long-held notion that privacy drives productivity. To that end, it is good to know that there are creative solutions to designing a work environment that promotes collaboration and maintains productivity. They gray area must exist, but it has to be strategically designed.
Paul Osborn, a 30-year industry veteran, is creative director at Interprise. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.