First, let’s begin with a brief history lesson on open floor offices
The idea of open office spaces emerged in the 1950s in Germany, when consultants Wolfgang Schnelle and Eberhard Schnelle came up with the idea of an office space without partitions, furnished without any obstructions, and decorated with plants. Their aim was to promote communication within the company.
In 1964 Herman Millear, an American furniture company, marketed the Action Office Series 1 in which they created the first modular office comprised of panels and workplaces adapted to the employees’ activities. It was not until 1968 that designer Robert Probst invented the cubicle - an office containing removable partitions standing at about four and a half feet high. This provides office workers privacy when sitting and gives them an overview of the offices when they stand up.
Companies love open-plan offices because you are able to increase the workspace without the need to have a bigger building. Colleagues sit close to each other giving them the chance to communicate freely and increase collaboration and innovation.
Nowadays, Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and IBM have spent thousands of dollars replacing traditional private offices with large open spaces, smaller team spaces for meetings and collaborations, and private offices or pods for private conversations. As Facebook's Chief People Officer said, “It really creates an environment where people can collaborate; they can innovate together. There’s a lot of spontaneity in the way people bump into each other, just a really fun collaborative creative space.”
Does your small business need an open floor plan office?
An open floor plan office has many benefits, and the lower cost of setting it up makes it an ideal setup for small businesses. However, an open floor plan doesn't work for every business. If not set up properly, it can cause distractions, lower your employees’ productivity, and create a lot of employee conflicts.
Not all companies are meant to have an open floor plan office space. To know if it fits your small business, here's what you need to consider:
- Set out the vision and mission of your company and choose your office structure accordingly.
- Identify the number of employees your company is planning to have and how fast this number will grow.
- Consider how big your business is – small businesses are better fits for an open floor office, as open spaces in big companies tend to create more chaos.
- Consider the type of work done by employees. For example, are there are highly collaborative tasks.
- Identify the age range and personality of employees – this can affect the acceptance of open-spaces.
If your business cannot fully adapt, you can set up open-space floor plans for certain departments. Highly collaborative groups can greatly benefit from an open-space floor plan.
Advantages vs disadvantages
The drastic shift from private spaces to a shared space has been debated extensively, but while there are many benefits of an open-floor office plan that cannot be ignored, there are also disadvantages that could ruin your small business. We’ll now discuss the advantages and disadvantages of an open-space office:
Easy cross-functional collaboration between employees. This is one of the greatest benefits over traditional setups. When multiple employees work in the same space at the same time, they are more likely to share ideas and ask for input. Although there are tools available online for communication and collaboration like Slack, Skype, Trello, and other instant messaging apps, nothing beats the psychological and productivity benefits of in-person interaction.
Higher exposure to different types of expertise. These spaces not only enhance the sharing of ideas but help in expediting the decision-making process as well. It creates an environment where people can collaborate and innovate together.
A sense of belonging and equality. What’s great about the open-floor plan office is that no one feels that they are above anyone else in the hierarchical ladder in the company. Gone are the days where getting an office with a door signifies a higher status in the company.
Lower costs. When your office doesn't have as many walls and rooms to plan, a significant amount of the costs are saved. Natural light is your friend in this setup; thereby lowering the costs of monthly electricity bills. This setup also saves you a lot in air conditioning and heat.
It feels too distracting or chaotic. Employees may find it hard to concentrate on a specific task and errors can creep into work as distractions are all over the place.
Loss of actual leadership. Because of the sense of belonging and equality, there may be times where employees no longer see their superiors as superiors. Directives may not be followed and the chain of command could be broken.
Some people perform better when they work alone. Some people can get easily distracted by the noise, the people that they see, and the environment. There are times where office workers are more efficient when they have their own quiet office space.
It can negatively affect employees’ motivation and satisfaction. In an open space, employees can see what everyone else is doing. If they see an employee - or sets of employees - that are unmotivated to work, this affects their own motivation. If there is a conflict between employees, the tension spreads faster in an open floor plan than through a closed floor office. This adds to the chaos and decreases the company's morale.
How to overcome the privacy issue
You'll still need a place where managers and employees can meet in private to talk about private matters and for employee reviews. You will need to create conference rooms for group meetings, separate rooms, and/or pods where people can work alone. Make sure that you have enough private spaces to meet your employees’ needs.
The importance of a "place identity"
To overcome the disadvantages of an open floor plan office, you’ll need to allow your employees to create an identity in a shared space. Your employees have to feel that they belong to that place. This can be achieved through the following:
- Choosing adjustable furniture to make employees feel more at ease within their working space.
- Including employees in the vision of the company and how an open space can better fit the company's vision.
- Being enthusiastic about the open space as a leader or a manager can help employees feel more involved and happy about their working conditions.
- Giving employees the freedom to make changes in the office according to their needs. This helps employees adapt faster to the environment and creates a sense of belonging.
- If all the above points are taken into consideration, the level of satisfaction will increase and employees will create a strong sense of connection among themselves and with the company.
Are there any other alternatives to an open office?
Just because you decide to move forward with an open-floor plan, doesn’t mean that the whole company needs to change. Start with specific departments, and identify employees or job types that need concentration and give them their own office. When there is a need for teamwork, create a space where they can collaborate.
Include several smaller open spaces. A big open space environment can get too noisy, so the best solution would be to provide smaller open space areas. This greatly helps in reducing the noise.
The idea behind open floor offices should be flexible. People at top-level management, therefore, have the duty to communicate with their employees and follow up with them to find out what can be changed to make the environment in the shared space more pleasant.