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Everything You Need to Know About the Open Office Floor Plan

The open-office floor plan is everywhere these days, but you probably already know that. According to International Facility Management, 70% of American employees spend their working lives in open floor plan offices. But that doesn’t mean everybody loves them—the open office has drawn considerable criticism over the last few years.

Despite that criticism the open office isn’t here by accident. On the contrary, there are a lot of things to love about the open office layout.

What the open office gets right

Open-office spaces tend to be the favorite among millennials, tech firms and startups, and they’re becoming more normal in traditional businesses too. There are a lot of good reasons for this—open offices promote interaction among employees of all levels and functions, helping facilitate greater levels of teamwork and innovation.

Open seating is also perfect for organizations that are looking for the easy, casual, and often profitable collaboration between different parties that comes from the coworking environment or even the shared office space environment. Coworking is expanding at the speed of light—WeWork’s latest valuation hit a staggering $16B, and smaller coworking hosts are putting their own spin on the latest office-space breakthrough. Yet open office-floor plans aren’t found only in coworking spaces—major employers like American Express and Goldman Sachs are also opening up their offices, and Michael Bloomberg brought the model to city hall in New York City in his time as mayor.

The maximization of space has a lot to do with that. For some firms, that means using easily-movable furniture and unassigned seats to make the most of their space, while at the same time making collaboration easy. All you need to do is move a table and change your seat to form a new work-group.

Maximizing space not only makes it easier to work together—it saves money. Open offices require less square footage per employee, since employees are all sitting together and moving around throughout the day. And companies are really starting to pack people in…by 2017 American offices are expected to allot just 151 square feet per employee—that’s down from 225 feet in 2010.

Not everybody is on board

When some employees hear terms like “promoting interaction,” “teamwork” and “fluid offices,” what they’re thinking is “goodbye privacy” and “noise noise noise.” The number one complaint about the open office is how the fluid layout erodes nearly all visual and auditory privacy, and these aren’t trivial complaints—a recent study found almost 40% of employees in open offices wish they had more privacy while another discovered workers in these layouts are less focused and more stressed.

Many employees intuitively know they are more productive when they have privacy. Nobody disagrees that cubicles are ugly, but they do allow you to work in a mostly-private space while at the same time being accessible to your colleagues—both good things.

On another level, older employees remember the days when getting a corner office was almost as good as getting a promotion. In that model, the space you occupy largely reflected your value and level of achievement within the firm. After working their whole careers and now finding themselves in comfortable, prestigious lodgings, many older employees are understandably unhappy about relinquishing them.

What is the middle ground?

There are benefits and drawbacks to the open office, just as there are to private offices or cubicles. Whether an open office boosts creativity, integration and teamwork or drains an employee’s concentration while adding more stress, is ultimately connected to what type of work that businesses does.

Open seating is particularly effective for employees engaged with creativity and marketing, and other tasks that benefit from easy collaboration. Then there are those jobs, the more “heads down” professions, that don’t benefit from constant interactivity—I’m talking about people like programmers, and number crunchers. On top of that, there are HR professionals, legal departments and those who handle accounts payable. These positions are not even close to ideal for open offices since they require confidentiality.

Despite the benefits to open offices, and the gains they are making in the modern workplace, some jobs, and people, require privacy. Whether that’s for productivity or confidentiality, it means open seating should not completely replace the private office. At the same time open offices provide boosts to roles that rely on interactions with coworkers, they help foster innovation and they ease pressure on the bottom line. Those are big successes, and because of them, we can expect the open office to continue to gain ground. So, the open-office space trend isn’t heading towards conquest—it’s heading towards integration.

The modern office is anything but a zero sum game, and it’s not terribly difficult to combine the best each office layout has to offer into one modern office. Offices will continue to open up, the benefits of interactivity and reduced costs are too much to ignore, but most offices will also be equipped with private rooms. However those rooms will likely not be reserved for senior executives, instead they will serve the practical needs of departments, and individuals, that require confidentiality and quiet.

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