I have seen a number of articles, such as this recent one in the New Yorker, decrying the negative effects of open offices on employees. Some of the detriments noted by the article include increased stress, lower concentration, and lower productivity, due to increased interactions (wanted or unwanted) with co-workers and higher noise levels. From my experience, these effects can’t be blamed solely on the fact that the office has an open layout, but can be controlled through thoughtful design and effective management.
Think about the work being done. Is it appropriate for an open floor plan? While the majority of jobs can be done in an open office, some are just better left to private offices. (Think lawyers, hiring managers). If they are working with a lot of confidential material or hosting many private meetings, give these workers the privacy they need.
How much collaboration is needed? In a high-collaboration environment, keep the partitions between cubicles low. If work is mostly individual, make the partitions a little higher. For example, 54” partition heights let workers see each other when they stand, but when they sit, they have some privacy to focus on their work.
Good acoustics will reduce the overall noise level.
Provide alternative spaces for non-desk work. For example:
Huddle rooms – great for small group discussions
Phone rooms – for private phone conversations
Destination areas – large lounge and meeting spaces, apart from the office area, for meetings (formal and informal), breaks, and casual interactions with co-workers.
Stress levels are much more impacted by the job itself than the desk location. Keep stress in check by controlling workload, hours, and expectations. (And remember, stress can be non-work-related too.)
Noise levels – there will always be some noise, but business leaders can manage this by setting expectations. When are non-work-related conversations appropriate and how long should they last? What level of collaboration is required or encouraged? If there are problems with noise and distractions, management should deal with those appropriately.
Training – when moving from an office environment to an open floor plan, it may be helpful to provide some etiquette training. Open office etiquette may seem like common sense (keep your voice down, blow your nose in the restroom, use headphones for your music), but some people need a reminder.
Be aware of individual differences. If someone needs to plug into headphones to block out distractions and focus, let them (provided it doesn’t interfere with job responsibilities).
People placement – arrange people at desks so they are closest to people they collaborate with, to reduce the disruption to non-collaborators. Also, the desks near busy walkways are the most distracting. Reserve those for people who are at their desks the least, such as outside salespeople or managers who are always in meetings.
There are many benefits to open offices (particularly decreased real estate costs) and I don’t see them ever going away. The good news is that with good design and effective management, open offices can make for an excellent work environment.