The Open Office Trap

If you work in an office job, it’s very likely that – at least at one point in time – you’ve worked in an open-plan office. In the last decade or so, they’ve become common place especially within the so called new economy. They are seen as innovative reactions against old-school hierarchical workplace structures and meant to inspire a more collaborative and social environment, where ideas and processes can transfer easily between members of different departments and teams, leading to business innovation and advancement.

Removing walls or other physical barriers in an office space indeed makes it easier to interact with each other on a regular basis. Working in an open-plan office does generate a stronger sense of „camaraderie“, enhances the flow of information and teamwork. Interactions in such an office layout are generally more frequent and informal than they are in closed environments with separated offices, simply because coworkers can just turn to each other for assistance or advice, without having to knock on doors or schedule meetings.

At the same time, open-plan layouts benefit businesses economically by reducing costs tied to construction and utilities, as well as providing greater flexibility to accomodate growing personell needs. If you ecpecting a certain growth in headcount, those layouts can give you more of a „crumble zone“ than traditional layouts in which you are limited by the numbers of individual rooms within that space.

However, there are major cons to having an open-plan office layout. Even though a company might experience the above mentioned advantages at first, it creates a deeper layer of problems: In the end, they are unhealthy, needlessly stress-inducing and make people more irritable and aggressive. By subjecting (or, to be honest, actually forcing) your employees to an invasive degree of visibility and permanent availability, you are increasing anxiety and you actually steepen disparities in hierarchy and power. Open-plan layouts are, at the end of the day, a „little big brother“ surveillance state, where even those who ought to have nothing to hide, are subjected to being controlled not only by the management (who, of course, can leave that environment at any time without explaining themselves), but by their co-workers as well. All that causes open offices to be a hostile environment to productivity and creativity.

There are of course enough scenarios in which open-office layouts (at least to a certain headcount and/or within certain teams or job descriptions) make absolute sense! But when it comes to the descision of choosing between those 2 floorplans, i feel that descision makers not only often seem to underestimate the downsides of having an open-office layout (and overestimate those of a traditional office setup), but they also „fall“ for the marketing aspect of an open office: They enable a company to communicate a „young and fresh“ image of efficient, aggressive, around-the-clock innovation, simply because they look busy. So, a big part of choosing an open-office layout is simply a marketing aspect.

My main point is: Open offices do have their right to exist. They can be helpful and lead to an increased productivity and innovation, but they can also hinder and destroy them. Don’t just fall for the „coolness factor“ of what google does – find out if your company actually benefits from what you are trying to accomplish. If an open office would be the right thing for you: Go for it. If evaluating the possible pros and cons point towards a more traditional multi-office layout: Stick with that. Your employees will greatly appreciate it!

[Title Picture by „Oil Industry News“ via Public DOmain – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A1_Houston_Office_Oil_Traders_on_Monday.jpg]