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Space Matters: Open vs. Closed Offices

Open vs. Closed: It's Not an Open and Shut Case

Creating the optimal office space is the goal of any company. However, there's been little consensus on what the best path is to achieve this objective. These days, managers have more to consider, as they also must take into consideration the best methods to keep employees' healthy and safe while they perform their duties. With these things in mind, the passionate argument of open office versus private workspace is even more significant than before.


In 2013, Fast Company's article "Offices for all! Why open-office layouts are bad for employees, bosses, and productivity" was among the publication's top ten most-read. A January 2014 New Yorker piece ("The open-office trap") elicited hundreds of strikingly in-depth reader comments. In general, few people appear to take the middle ground in this debate. One is either a staunch supporter of the benefits of open space or a defender of personal space and privacy as fundamental to both quality and quantity of work. And there appeared to be little middle ground. In the present, an entire generation has had to react, adapt, and reinvent "normal" life following a pandemic - including how and where they work.

Good Design Makes a Difference

What is not in question is the importance of a well-designed space to the success of a business. While office design seems like a simple process to start, when you begin to think about everything that goes into the space and how it will be used every day, it quickly becomes more complicated. Whether setting up an office to work from home, choosing to set up a row of cubicles for a specific team, or deciding on a layout for the entire office, understanding how the arrangement affects employees is crucial for success.


Good office design can also be used as a strategic business advantage. In 2014, Kahler Slater (an interdisciplinary design enterprise), did a study on companies that achieved "Best Places to Work" status. In their findings, it was recognized that a well-designed work environment not only constitutes a competitive advantage but aids in the attraction and retention of employees.


Another space that's considered worthy of protection is common gathering areas for teams and employees. These spots can range from large rooms that are used for all-hands meetings to adaptable spaces that are multi-functional. Still, they share a common intention - they allow employees to gather – to celebrate, to honor, and to collaborate.


So how might one define a "well-designed" workplace? Kahler Slater suggests in its 2013 whitepaper, "What makes a great workplace?" that a well-designed workplace is simply a place "where an employee's ability to act is (positively) impacted by the design of the physical environment."


But here's the catch: given its heavy dependence on a company's business objectives and its culture, "well-designed" is a mostly subjective concept. "Well-designed" for one company might translate into a massive liability for another. Clearly, the ongoing debate between diehard supporters of private offices and the contemporary visionaries who maintain the importance of open space layouts to creativity and innovation is only fueling the fire.


The Debate

Some who have weighed in have suggested that the line of demarcation between those who prefer a private office and those who are comfortable in an open-office space is based on age – that is, if you're over 40, you want your own private space. Whereas, if you're a multitasking millennial, you may be quite happy sitting eye-to-eye with your colleagues. Others maintain that the difference in office space preference is a direct reflection of one's degree of introversion or extroversion. The truth is, one's choice is more likely a reflection of one's work style and job requirements as they relate to a specific company's mission and culture.


In Support of the Open Office

As the business world has evolved from an assembly line-dominated environment to the time-sensitive age of the knowledge worker, the space in which we work must also develop to better support the real-time production, nurturing, and sharing of ideas. Creativity and innovation, the life-blood of modern business, require a higher degree of quality interaction than individual offices, and designated meeting times might provide.


Open-space work environments remove much of the perceived hierarchy and barriers that keep good ideas within the domain of only the senior-most employees. Open-space work environments hold the potential to instill a more profound sense of community among workers and allow for fluid, real-time collaboration among teams.


While this design continues to dominate many offices - some 70% of all offices now have an open floor plan - it will undergo an evolution to meet employee needs and demands. Items like personal cubicles or designated workstations that seemed like a better fit for the "private office" argument will start making an appearance in these spaces as a way to keep employees safe and productive. What will also look different is the personalization of these spaces with photos and personal items.


"Janitorial staff often cannot clean desks with personal items on them, as it's a liability," said Armen Vartanian, vice president of Okta's global workplace services, to CNBC. "It will likely be more sanitary to have open desks and workstations — equipped with the latest technology — that employees can pick each day and can be cleaned afterward. "


In Support of Closed Offices

A myriad of studies conducted over the past few decades suggest a relatively high correlation between employee satisfaction and feelings of control over their work environment. Supporters of individual offices maintain that the privacy afforded someone with a personal, albeit small, workspace contributes to an employee's sense of comfort and control. Closed spaces or private offices have been observed to enhance concentration and possibly productivity by minimizing the distractions (noise, movement) that may naturally occur in open-space environments.


Added to this argument is also the ability to maintain safety at a presumed, more manageable rate. With personal space already built into an office layout, janitorial staff can more strategically concentrate their sanitization efforts, and companies have a bit more peace of mind to offer to their employees.


Open or Closed?

While there can be significant savings in the successful implementation of a well-designed open-space work environment, unless you're creating a space that's specifically designed to fit your company's business, mission, and culture, the savings could be for nothing. And instead, they'll be offset by declines in employee satisfaction, increased absenteeism, and even diminished overall productivity. On the flip side, your business may thrive on dynamic interdepartmental collaboration. If that is not the case, maintaining individual offices could severely inhibit your ability to get the best ideas to market competitively.


The key to optimizing your work environment is to ensure it is a fit with your company - your business, vision, mission, and even employees.


Balance Individual and Team Productivity

Plan for a balance of open, private, and flexible space. Although the benefits of collaboration are unquestionable, people also need time and space to concentrate. People also want the visual acknowledgment that their health and safety are highly regarded. Including enclosed, semi-open and open spaces with shields to protect from cough and sneeze particles or higher cubicle walls to provide a physical barrier empower your employees' to select the environment best suited to deliver their highest quality performance.


Build Flexibility into Your Plan

When creating workspace options, carefully consider the work styles and desired output for the various employee groups within your company. Including enclosed, semi-open and open spaces to support different functions and activities empowers your employees to select the environment best suited to deliver their highest quality performance.


Address Your Processes Alongside Your Space

Even a workspace "well-designed" to precisely fit your business needs can fail to deliver the desired results if your culture doesn't include a few rules of the road as they relate to workflow, deadlines, meetings, and personal versus communal space.


Hire for "Fit" as Well as Experience and Expertise

If you and your team believe that the energy that comes from collaboration is at the heart of your success, then be sure to recruit people who share your passion for the sense of community that can come from an open-space environment. If you're a collection of somewhat independent partners, make sure you bring on people who don't feel isolated or abandoned in a closed office space. Studies suggest "fit" is as important as the space itself.


Consider Your Options Before You Commit

While the ultimate objective might be cost savings, reinventing your workspace can require an investment in time, resources, and money. To better manage that investment as well as minimize any risk of "getting it wrong" or changes that might occur in the future (e.g., temporary contraction in your workforce), consider renting rather than buying your furniture. If you are wise enough to use office design as a business tool, then choose furniture rental as a way to optimize that tool.