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Open Offices – Innovative or Disastrous?


Often times when an architectural firm retains an engineering consultant for assistance on constructing an office building, the trends of today’s workplaces are discussed as potential design choices. From designated napping areas, to ping pong tables in the break rooms, modern work environments have certainly changed in the past few years and are now more geared towards a fun, enjoyable environment. One of the most popular of these trends to come up in modern workplace designs is the open office concept, which does away with private offices and cubicles in favor of putting all employees and their desks in one room with easy visual and auditory access to one another.

Why an Open Office?

The reasoning behind why a company would decide to build an open office seems sound when you first look at it. An open office design means that employees have consistent access to each other, which in theory should result in an environment filled with teamwork and creative collaboration. The financial considerations are also appealing to business owners, as a private office is approximately 350 square feet and an open office design averages 110 square feet per person which makes it easier to fit more people into a smaller area.

Sounds Great, so What is the Problem?

With those benefits, why would anyone consider not designing their work spaces this way? Well, the supposed benefits don’t always work as they’re meant to. The main drawback of open offices is what is sold as a benefit – the access workers have to each other. When there are no walls or doors separating the employees of a company, it makes it nearly impossible for workers who need quiet and privacy for concentration to get anything done. In an environment where it’s easy for workers to constantly interrupt each other with questions and ideas, the person asking the question benefits greatly but the person being asked questions all day will have very little energy left for their own work.

To put a number to it, studies have shown that it takes about 23 minutes to get back into focus after being interrupted in the middle of a task. If an employee is interrupted once an hour during an eight hour day, that’s 184 minutes of lost time trying to get back on track, which is over three hours of productivity lost. Between constant questions, overheard phone calls, and the general noise that would normally be muffled by a cubicle or office wall, open offices tend to result in rows of silent workers wearing noise blocking headphones which is hardly the display of creative enthusiasm that bosses hope for.

What Other Drawbacks Could Arise?

Another thing to consider when thinking about designing an open office is the potential for disease spreading. If a sick, contagious employee comes into work and brings that illness into an open office, one well-placed sneeze means that the entire office could come down with the cold of the month. The lost time in sick days likely negates any initial savings the company had by making a slightly smaller work place.

Does this mean that we should go back to the old days of boring, depressing cubicle farms or splash out on private offices for all workers? No, absolutely not. One of the most effective designs for offices is also the most flexible, which allows for workers to choose their environment based on their needs at that time. Offices are starting to have mobile laptops that employees can bring into lounge type areas for group meetings and collaboration, or into soundproof rooms when needing to be totally uninterrupted for work on a project.

Allowing employees freedom, flexibility, and autonomy in choosing their level of workplace noise means that collaboration isn’t sacrificed for silence and vice-versa, resulting in the most beneficial and cost effective environment possible. So whether you’re renovating or constructing an office, just remember to look at the big picture and to deliver what the client really needs long term.