Disadvantages To Open Plan Offices And How To Get Around Them

As previously discussed, open plan office are very much in vogue. They allow freer flows of information and create a more egalitarian workplace, both of which are important factors in a horizontal company structure. Unfortunately, after a little bit of time in a free range office, you may come to appreciate the focus and quiet of the soul crushing cubicles you eliminated whilst channelling your inner John Locke.

First, walls muffle sound and hinder distraction. If you have five people at one large desk, simultaneously speaking on the phone then none of them will be able to concentrate. As well, the normal goings on of an office space can get noisy. People walking in and out of the office, clicking on keyboards, going to make tea, all of this can be rather distracting, and if you need to be able to focus and have some quiet then you will start to find an open plan office to be rather unproductive.

Second, open plan offices reduce privacy. Everyone can see and hear everything. If your boss is yelling at a colleague, a client is coming in to discuss a project or you are ignoring work to search for your new home, then you and everyone around you will know it. The advantage to this is that everyone is more aware of what is going on in the company, decreasing wasted time repeatedly briefing people and increasing synergy. The disadvantage is that everything tends to diffuse. This is of course the goal, natural dissemination of information, but not always an advantage. Clutter diffuses as well, so does confidential information. Bottom line, sometimes having the entire office all in one room all the time isn’t the greatest of ideas.

Higher level management may also want to have their own offices. I recall one extreme story from business school of a Danish company which did away with assigned desk space. Instead they had a series of tables with rolling cupboards to store materials in. This can increase cooperation and creativity, but doesn’t allow for people to keep individual supplies or documents very easily. Imagine, if you will that all of the items on your desk were suddenly moved across the room and no one told you. See, big problem.

There are ways around these issues, though. First, wood floors reverberate sound significantly and make walking much louder.  Installing high quality, durable, carpet will allow you to cut noise down significantly. As well, some dividers may be valuable. Half dividers, which only go a few feet above a desk can provide some privacy and quiet but still keep the natural light and communal feel which an open office provides. Management can also have glass walls with large double doors for their offices. That way, they can close themselves off when needed and then open the doors up when they want to be part of the greater office team. Finally make space for break out rooms and various smaller meeting rooms, so that if someone needs a last minute sit down or has to get some peace and quiet, then they are likely to find a small room to sit and have space to work. Effectively the key is finding ways to open up and close in, so that communication and community can build but work can still get done.