A Guest Post by Dean Stier
Open space office design is not a new concept. Neither is popular music. Both of these things have been around for years. They just have a different feel to them than they did several decades ago.
Even now, if you ask ten people to define what an open space office looks like you will most likely get ten different answers. This is because the definition of the term leaves a lot of room for interpretation and individual variation.
In its simplest terms, an open space office is one in which the workplace design maximizes the use of large open spaces and minimizes the use of small enclosed rooms. Within the parameters of that definition, there is a lot of wiggle room but it’s safe to say that a business that embraces the open office concept is likely to have workspaces where employees are able to see and/or hear each other more freely and are more likely to interact with each other on a regular basis.
Although the concept isn’t new, the impetus towards implementing open office design has definitely been gaining traction within the last few years as firms look to reduce costs through more efficient space utilization while at the same time increasing productivity through more employee collaboration and teamwork. In theory, that sounds great. However, the trend has fostered a lively debate about the pros and cons of open space design.
Detractors cite factors such as loss of employee privacy, a greater risk of health problems, and excess noise. On the flip side, supporters tout the enhanced opportunities for collaboration and teamwork, greater sharing of information, increased production, and lower corporate costs.
So who is right? Well, both sides have valid points. The general answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. But it’s not hard to see that a lot depends on the nature of the business. For some types of companies, open work spacing can be like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. For others, open office design fits the business profile like a glove. Let’s take a closer look at where the concept might work well and where it may not.
Some general observations: Companies that are defined by an ongoing need for creative environments are ideal candidates for open office design. Some of these might be the following:
- Advertising agencies
- Graphic design companies
- Many professional service firms
- Journalism newsrooms
- Marketing agencies
On the other hand, companies whose workers require heavy periods of concentration or whose clients require large doses of confidentiality are less apt to embrace an open atmosphere. Some examples:
- Accounting firms
- Financial planning agencies
- Recruitment firms
- Some law firms
You probably notice that the list of businesses mentioned in the above paragraph is far from exhaustive. This is because in the vast majority of industries, open design is very much a mixed bag. It works very well in certain departments and for certain business functions—but not so well in other segments of the corporation. Take for example, the IT world.
A January 2011 article in Computerworld gives an insightful rundown of the considerations facing planners trying to forge the best design solution for an IT firm. The article points out that certain segments of the IT workforce can be very productive in an open office climate and in actual practice “are embracing office layouts that encourage interaction.” These include:
- web designers
- software developers
- project managers
- system architects
The article goes on to describe other business functions that are more resistant to an open workplace because such an environment can be one “where noise, distractions and interruptions can be akin … to departmental decimation.” Examples include:
- network administrators
The general point is that IT professionals who specialize in creative coding tend to thrive in an open space environment, whereas those who need to do a more cerebral type of coding would exist better in a more closed setting.
Another “mixed bag” industry grappling with the open space office dilemma is cited in this article, which describes how oil and gas companies are trying to ascertain what kind of office space works best for their employees.
As examples of how different work functions react differently to open space design, the article shows how geologists (need to concentrate and require wall space to hang oversized maps) are best suited to closed spaces; whereas sales and marketing employees appear to thrive in an open space setting.
The answer for most firms lies in some form of hybrid system—but it needs to be one that is well thought out and tailored to not only the business itself but also to the various departments within its walls. Here is an article that shows how one large company met this challenge. Many others are now doing the same. As time goes on, it is becoming more apparent that the open office train is picking up speed and an increasing number of companies are learning to jump on board and ride it smartly. And just like popular music, open office design is sounding better to firms that are learning how to adapt to the beat.
About the Author:
Dean Stier is Vice President of National Business Furniture, one of America’s leading providers of office desks, office chairs and other office furniture to businesses, government agencies and other institutions.