The open plan office has become a fixture of the modern workplace. Private offices and cube farms have been replaced by flexible workspaces with little or no partitions. 60% of companies have now adopted open plan layouts, with more than a third having changed from closed to open layout within the past five years.
The trend is particularly prevalent in London, where a rise in flexible serviced offices has contributed to the layout’s increasing popularity. A Deloitte report on office occupation in central London found that floor space dedicated to serviced offices has increased by 67% since 2004.
The growing influence of millennial workers has also contributed to the rise of open place workspaces. By 2020, Generation Y will account for 40% of the global workforce, gradually replacing the baby boom generation as it moves into retirement. Undivided arrangements are well-suited to millennials as they typically value teamwork, collaboration and communication.
However, as more businesses embrace the open office in order to retain millennial talent, baby boomers are not so endorsive of this arrangement. They place more value on workplace privacy and also tend to consider their office space as their own level of achievement and value. This leads to the question, are open plan offices a cost-effective way of encouraging productivity through collaboration, or do they generate distractions that limit the efficiency of a workforce?
Open plan offices promote communication and collaboration
A recent survey found that 96% of executives cite ineffective communication as the cause of most workplace failures. One third of HR managers also believe poor communication is the reason behind the majority of morale issues.
The absence of physical barriers in an open plan space makes it easier for employees to interact with each other. Not only does enhanced communication generate camaraderie within a team, it also improves the flow of information and allows colleagues to collaborate more easily. For instance, colleagues are able to seek the advice of other team members without having to schedule a formal meeting. Consequently, projects are tackled more efficiently with an added level of expertise.
Flexible layouts allow for better space management
Open plan arrangements allow more people to work per square inch, reducing the amount of space a business needs to acquire. Advancements in mobile and cloud technology mean that telecommuting is entirely possible and permanent desk space is no longer a necessity, further emphasising the appeal of a serviced office.
Adopting an open layout and promoting the use of hot-desking can help a business reduce office-related costs. An office without partitions can save on heating and electricity expenses due to the improved flow of air and light. The sharing of resources means equipment costs are also cut, whereas in a closed office each individual workstation may need to have its own printer and other equipment.
However, an office will always need space to hold meetings with clients. To reduce noise disruption, glass office partitions can be installed to designate specific meeting areas while giving the illusion that the office is much larger than it actually is. In offices based on multiple floors, even the elevator can reflect the open design of an office. A glass lift can become a stylish central design feature, such as the transparent elevator on the Lloyds building in London, without harming the open aesthetic.
Office absenteeism is increased in a communal environment
Communal workspace and the sharing of resources facilitates the spread of illness. If one employee comes to work with a cold or virus, it can be easily caught by all of the other employees sharing the same environment.
In a cellular office, employees have their own private space reducing the risk of spreading illness. One study found employees working in an open plan office take up to 62% more sick days than those who have their own private space. Business efficiency is significantly reduced with higher levels of absenteeism. More than 130 million sick days are taken in the UK each year, costing the economy an estimated £36 billion.
Open plan offices reduce privacy
Privacy is another problem associated with undivided workspaces. Computer screens are easily visible and telephone conversations are often overheard. In addition, a lack of privacy can lead to legal or ethical issues stemming from the compromised confidentiality of clients, business partners or colleagues.
A review of more than one hundred studies into the office environment found that open workspaces generate a sense of organisational mission and made employees feel like they were part of an innovative team. However, the review also found that open offices are damaging to an employee’s attention span, productivity, creativity and satisfaction.
Open plan offices are likely to continue growing in popularity as serviced office providers and millennials make their mark on the modern workplace. However, for businesses to reap the rewards of an undivided office, they will first have to search for solutions to the inherent problems that come with an open layout.