Open office spaces: The pros and cons

Open office spaces: The pros and cons

Open office spaces or an open-plan workspace is a floor plan layout and floor space configuration characterized by the use of large open space with minimal to zero use of enclosed rooms such as office rooms or wall partitions and cubicles.

Arguments for Open-Plan Workspace: The Purported Benefits and Advantages of Open Office Spaces

Open office spaces were prevalent across the United States and other developed countries around the world since the 1900s. These offices typically consisted of long rows of desks and benches in which administrative personnel such as clerks and typists performed repetitive tasks. This floor space configuration was inspired from the floor plan layouts that are common in manufacturing facilities.

Journalist Shane Hickey mentioned that an 1895 report from the United Kingdom government recommended putting employees tasked with mechanical or repetitive work under the same room for proper supervision. He also mentioned that architect Frank Lloyd Wright implemented an open-plan workspace in the design of the Larkin Administration Building in New York that opened in 1906. This layout became more prevalent with the growth of office-based jobs.

The years spanning from the 1990s to 2000s saw variations in office spaces. Open-plan workspaces have competed with other floor space configurations such as the use of cubicles and private offices to promote privacy, as well as semi-enclosed spaces and shared or enclosed rooms for teams of two to eight people.

Nevertheless, modern organizations that value collaboration and teamwork have once again experimented with open office spaces. Prominent examples of these are tech companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft that are striving to encourage cross-collaboration and expedite creativity and innovation.

Proponents have often cited the following benefits and advantages of open office spaces:

• Cost-Effective: Small organizations with limited office space and tight budget would benefit from implementing an open-plan workspace by maximizing available floor area and through reduced expenses from constructing rooms and installing partitions. Note that rooms and partitions are not only costly but also take up spaces.

• Better Monitoring: An open office space allows better monitoring and supervision of employees. This is true for an organizational department with a large number of personnel. Some have believed that employees in individualized or enclosed to semi-enclosed spaces are prone to slacking off while at work.

• Promotes Relationships: A primary purported advantage of open office space centers on the fact that it can foster face-to-face interactions, collaboration, and teamwork, as well as exposure of individual personnel to different kinds of expertise. Some have argued that semi-closed and closed spaces can be alienating because it sets an individualistic tone.

Criticism Against Open-Plan Workspace: The Limitations and Disadvantages of Open Office Spaces

The popularity of open office spaces among large multinational and tech companies beginning mid-2000s has been met with criticisms. Some people are not comfortable working in open-plan workspaces due to several reasons centered on the negative impact on their productivity. Several studies have supported these anecdotes.

S. Bernstein and S. Turban conducted two intervention-based field studies of corporate headquarters transitioning to an open office space configuration revealed notable cons. For example, contrary to commonly held notion from proponents, the volume of face-to-face interactions decreased by about 70 percent in an open-plan workspace while increasing electronic interaction via email and instant messaging. The researchers noted that the office space layout triggered a natural human response to social withdrawal from officemates.

A literature review by V. G. Oommen, I. Zhao, and M. Knowles also revealed another disadvantage of open office spaces. An examination of prior studies from around the world concluded that an open-plan workspace causes high levels of stress and high blood pressure due to overstimulation and relationship conflicts, as well as colds and flu. Furthermore, the floor plan layout also generates problems such as loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, and low job satisfaction.

The book by organizational psychologist and management Adrian Furnham mentioned that open office spaces do not work for all people. He noted introverts as an example. The high cortical arousal of these individuals would perform poorly in an open-plan workspace due to high levels of sensory stimulation. In other words, introverts would be more productive when placed in closed or semi-enclosed office spaces.

In consideration of anecdotal and evidence-based criticisms, the following are the limitations and disadvantages of open office spaces:

Can Be Distracting: Noises generated by electronic devices such as computers and mobile phones or from the interactions of the people are undeniably distracting. Other sources of distractions center on visual stimulation from the movements of people. Overstimulation can negatively affect the individual performance of employees by inducing stress and anxiety, as well as loss of concentration.

• Less Privacy: Another disadvantage of an open office space is that it promotes an unrestricted access to the work desks, computers, and files of employees. Conversations are also less private under this setting. Take note that privacy laws are still applicable to private organizations. It is also worth mentioning that an open-plan workspace is also vulnerable to the prying eyes of visitors.

• Reduces Autonomy: Some workers might feel that being placed in an open office space make them disposable assets of an organization that are tasked with mechanical work. Others might also think that they are being subjected under stricter supervision or micromanagement in which every move they make is being monitored. Too much collaboration reduces a sense of independence.

• Not Suitable for Introverts: Another limitation of an open office space is that it does not work for everyone. Different employees have different traits. Introverts would suffer from auditory and visual overstimulation that would certainly affect their performance and productivity. People with social anxiety can still be very productive, but their ability to get the work done can be affected by the constant presence of people within their immediate surroundings.

• Inflexible to Tasks: Some tasks or works would not work well in an open-plan workspace. Jobs such as writing, computer programming or coding, and graphic design require a high degree of concentration. Distractions, the lack of privacy, and a reduction in the feeling of autonomy can affect the way people perform any of these tasks. Take note that managers and executives are often placed in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces not just because of their status in an organization but because of their need to be from interruptions.

• More Prone to Sickness: Possibly, a more daunting disadvantage of an open office space is that it can make employees more prone to sickness than their counterparts placed in a non-open-plan workspace. This layout increases stress, anxiety, and blood pressure levels due to distraction and possibility of relationship conflicts. It is also easier to transmit germs that cause influenza or common colds because of a higher level of face-to-face interactions.

In a Nutshell: The Pros and Cons of Open Office Spaces

An open office space or open-plan workspace has both advantages and disadvantages. Based on the discussion above, the only notable benefit of this floor plan configuration is that it is cost-effective for small organizations with limited office space and a tight budget. However, for larger organizations, the limitations and disadvantages far outweigh this single advantage.

FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES

  • Bernstein, E. S. and Turban, S. 2018. “The Impact of the Open Workspace on Human Collaboration.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 373(1753). DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0239
  • Furnham, A. 2005. The Psychology of Behavior at Work: The Individual and the Organization. Hove: Psychology Press. ISBN: 1-84169-504-1
  • Hickey, S. 2015. “The History of the Office: Why Open-Plan Fell Out of Fashion.” The Guardian. Available online
  • Oommen, V. G., Zhao, I., and Knowles, M. 2009. “Should Health Service Managers Embrace Open Plan Work-Environments? A Review.” Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management. 3(2): 37-43