Peer-to-Peer: Do open concept offices work better?

Written by ProfitGuide Staff


“A consultant has recommended that we adopt an ‘open-concept’ office layout when our business moves to new quarters next spring. She says this will encourage interaction, ideas and team-building. But so far the employees are resisting. They’re worried about noise and distractions, and they don’t want to give up their offices. Do you know of any examples that show open-concept works better? How can we convince our employees that this is the right thing to do?”

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Reader responses

Theresa Beenken, Toronto

Evergreen State College space study includes a section on Open Concept pros and cons at http://www.evergreen.edu/user/pol_proc/p-space.htm

There are also contributions from approx. 100 people who have experienced open-concept offices in response to the question, “Are open-plan offices good for employees and productivity, or are they a barrier to privacy and concentration?” at http://www.fastcompany.com/cgi-bin/votato/in.cgi?openplan_a

Name withheld by request

Currently, I work in an open-concept office. This can be wonderful at times as the atmosphere in the office is usually positive. Everyone has access to everyone without barriers and you feel encouraged to consult others on decisions or projects. Unfortunately, the noise level that exists even in the most positive atmosphere can be a problem. I often need to be on the phone as part of my job and when other people in my area are involved in conversations with each other or are also on the phone it can be very loud and often distracting.

I think that a well-planned office provides a certain amount of open space for those whose jobs would benefit from this concept, but also a certain number of offices or quiet areas. This is especially important for those employees that need to be in constant contact with clients, partners, suppliers and/or the media. Open concepts can be very encouraging and productive, but client-centric operations might not always be suited to this.

Oscar K.

Open-concept office was popular about 10 years ago. Experience since then has shown that it does not provide the desired results. Keep private offices and conduct team-building events outside of the working hours.

Debi Sikomas

I worked in an open-concept office for several years with the federal government in Calgary. Your staff may be under the illusion that the entire office will have NO walls (which may be the case??). The fear then becomes a privacy issue as well as one of distractions.

The office design I am familiar with was one of partial “walls” — these are approximately 5-foot-high, upholstered “walls” that create noise baffles as well as privacy screens between each grouping of four work spaces. Because these “walls” are acoustically superior to many products, our fears were abolished within the first few days of our new environment being in place. We actually had more room per person, bookshelves built in to each workstation, ergonomic furniture and EVERYONE shared the sunlight. Previously, some of our offices had no windows and would have been better described as closets!

And… If you need someone’s attention — stand up!! (Doesn’t do you too much good if you are short, though!) Each newly created office provides a quiet, professional and easy-to-personalize area that has the added feature of easy accessibility to colleagues. The mere “newness” added lots of excitement too, and ended up the best renovation to the workspace in years! Good luck!

Shawn Shenfield

We tried this 3 years ago and have no regrets.

You may find that some people will need an office for required privacy. Not all management, even senior managers, need this privacy all the time. If they only need the privacy on some occasions then shared space with a door will work.

A few concerns that need to be addressed:

  • People who mutter or make unnecessary noise will have to learn to be quieter.
  • Music must be a personal experience. We allow headphones and require co-operation. Management has determined that the privilege will be lost if it causes problems.
  • Management needs a space where they can close the door. They do not need to work there, but the space must be available.

Bill Kennedy, Markham, Ont.

Our consulting firm of 50 people abandoned our workstations and went to an open concept about a year ago. My experience is that your consultant and your employees are both right! The open concept encourages people to work together AND the noise can prove distracting. Looking back on it, we should have created a few more small meeting rooms where 3 or 4 people could go to work together without disturbing others. The ones we set up are constantly in use.

Another layout we are looking into is a blended open concept where similar groups can work together, but where there are partitions between the groups. For example, the consulting group will continue to have an open-concept layout, but they will be separated from the software-development group. That should give us the best of both worlds: collaboration without too much distraction.

Name withheld by request, Windsor, Ont.

We have an open working environment with one private area used for board meeting or personal interviews. The open concept has been welcomed by all and has allowed greater interaction amongst our personnel. We have 8 office staff and have found that they enjoy the ability to see each other and have small conversations during the day.

I, myself, find being cramped in a lonely office for 8 hours a day can become tiresome and the open-concept idea has promoted not only business ideas but a better personal relationship between employees.

One drawback is the potential for background noise, which can create problems during telephone conversations.

Moscou Coté, Montreal

There is but one rule in business that applies to any and all situations:

Nothing is absolutely the same, for everybody, all the time.

I’m weary of consultants with the “soupe du jour” solution…

Some like open spaces, some don’t, and the ones that do aren’t necessarily doing better with it, and the ones that don’t perhaps would be doing better.

Not knowing what your company does, it is hard for me to advise you what to do, however I think the decision should be at a workgroup level rather than an enterprise-wide one.

In our company we have both, and a mix of them both, because they are all useful in their own way.

The staff in the IT dept are in the same open space but not the same space as the accounting staff which also have their own open space. Even the managers of those departments share that room without a closed office. We did it this way because these folks need to share information with amongst them.

The sales representatives all have separate offices; since they don’t need to interact between each other to be efficient, they would simply distract each other.

Our phone agents are in one big room with 4-foot-high separators. It allows for supervision while preventing the agents from getting, shall we say, distracted.

It is also nice to keep in mind that open space requires less square footage for the same number of employees (i.e.: less $$$). Furthermore if your company is growth-oriented, adding a desk in an open space is a lot easier than changing walls around…

Frank Prosia

Our company had the same dilemma and we resolved the issue by meeting half way. The customer service /admin area is part open and part private workstations. We utilized dividers that are 36″ high on all inside workstations and those that are on the exterior walkways have 96″ on the side that faces that particular walkway. Works great and everyone’s happy

Name withheld by request

I am currently working in a partial open-plan office incorporating floor-to-ceiling acoustic dividers. There are 3 other males and myself, and one female worker. We all find that it is not only very distracting but virtually impossible for more than 3 of 5 to be on the phone simultaneously, as it is just too loud.

It is also impossible to have a private conversation with this arrangement.

We must still use a meeting room to effectively avoid outside distractions, especially from others roaming through our open area. With the open plan comes a too casual attitude that anyone can go anywhere, anytime, often intruding on other’s activities.

I’ll take a private office any day, for my own productivity.

Anne-Marie Fontainha

I am a Human Resources Consultant with over 15 years of HR experience. Your very same question has come up from time to time in my years in business. From what I have seen, individual offices are a must. The open concept is so distracting and noisy that people have a hard time concentrating on their jobs. With today’s fast and noisy world, it’s nice that you can go to your office, even if you don’t close the door, and do some work in a semi-peaceful and quiet place. If you are concerned with people communicating, then ensure a 1-hour weekly round table meeting where everyone participates.

Even employees who have partitions are more productive than in a totally open concept.

Also, people are den creatures. Having a space of their own, where they feel safe and familiar, adds to their productivity and contentment. If you look around your office, the employees who have more personal affects around them (i.e., pictures, flowers, personal coffee mug, etc.) are the most committed and content in their jobs. It is rare the person who does not make their surroundings their own and feels a sense of belonging in their workplace.

Bill Greenbaum

Open concept doesn’t work! So forget it. Stop. Just do the right thing and back off. But, but, but you can design offices that come close, and that means using short walls or drywall dividers that come up perhaps 5 feet at the max with open ceilings, etc. I’ve had a lot of experience in this area and my employees always, always need a place beyond the eyes of senior management. Always.

Tom Lie

The question from the PROFITeer reader in Toronto is an interesting one. From my experience, I would suggest the ‘giving up of their office’ is a much greater concern to the employees than the noise and distraction of the open-concept office. To many employees, having an office has a ‘status’ attached to it. Giving this up, to some, would be the loss of status.

I don’t believe management can convince employees that going to the open-concept office is the right thing to do. I would suggest that management should provide the opportunity for employees to examine this concept for themselves. In this regard, I would recommend that management attempt to find a business, similar to theirs, with an open-concept office. If successful in finding a business, I would arrange to send a small delegation of employees, on office time, to meet with a group from this business. If the concept is to be sold to the employees, their peers are probably more credible and have a better chance than management.

The noise and distractions may have some merit, however I believe the giving up of offices is to many a much greater concern. Management has everything to gain and nothing to lose with this strategy. Forcing an open-concept office on employees who are reluctant to accept this concept could have some serious negative consequences for the company.

Name withheld by request

In regards to personal experiences in the ‘open-concept offices’, I’d just like to say: Listen to the employees!

In my situation, we went from a cozy and comfortable office (partitions and shared separate offices with doors) with a small little smoking section for coffee breaks and good interaction, to a huge open-concept office in a new building. Sure, it was great to be in a ‘new’ building — but many things had changed. Nobody had partitions, so if you went to the photocopy machine whoever’s desk was there would be interrupted by the noise and people walking back and forth. How can one not be distracted with people walking up and down all day long? If one is easily distracted, they are not going to get as much work done.

My desk was plopped right in the very middle of this huge floor. My back was to the ‘main’ security entrance, I didn’t feel comfortable there and felt very ‘exposed’. Yes, it did affect my work. I was no longer able to concentrate on my work. The office interaction we all had before also changed. It wasn’t as ‘cozy’ and didn’t even seem as friendly as it was before. I know I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like the new layout of our office. I eventually left that place of employment, with relief. Sometimes, things shouldn’t change, listen to your employees. If things are going fairly smoothly, why would you want to upset the flow?

Shing-Kai Wu

Nearly all Japanese offices are open-concept layouts. Except senior management like directors, VP and up should have their offices.

Noise and distractions are excuses. Remember every and any entry-level jobs do share the same working space and learning through interactions.

If the consultant is advising an open-concept layout, it is to say that your company is needed to go back to basic for reasons (that is, lack of interaction and no team efforts).

Don Conaby, Ontario

This is a interesting story considering we went through this very task about a year ago. We had closed down our retail division to concentrate our effort on business-system integration. We decided to use the retail space by consolidating our offices from various parts of the same building. After much consultation amongst the management team, it was decide to have no offices and no permanent walls. In other words a complete open concept, even for the management team. All of our people’s concerns were the same as yours. Would noises and distractions be a problem? Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith — after all, most companies have moved this way.

After we completed the move, our offices look great. We purposely kept most of the dividers below four feet. We do however have a board room and a small meeting room with walls and a door. I would say that the benefits certainly outweigh the problems. Yes, there are noises and distractions. These do take some time to adjust to and there are some small changes to the way we conduct office business. Most of these just involve discretion. The benefits however have been worth it: much-improved communications and team building. I believe it has greatly improved the closeness between staff. The staff now have a better understanding of other players’ responsibilities and problems. There is a greater willingness to help others when they are in need.

Would we do it again? Yes, without a doubt. Change is never without its problems but good things seldom are.

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Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com