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Solving the Open-Plan Office Conundrum

| Office Design


Feb 11 2014

In the world of office design, the ever-criticized office cubicle has given way to a rise in popularity of open-plan office layouts. These offices feature minimal panels, dividers and walls, and they entirely eliminate private offices from the floor plan. Open-plan offices focus on a fully open space where everyone from senior management to entry-level employees works in the same area. “Benching”, a hallmark of the open-plan office, features rows upon rows of tables for employees to work at. Benching also allows everyone to openly see each other as they work, a method that is thought to encourage collaboration.


Benching

In fact, the open-plan office itself was designed with the specific purpose of encouraging more collaboration and teamwork among all employees. The theory makes a lot of sense. Remove physical barriers and employees are thrust into a virtual beehive of activity. Plus, with everyone sharing the same space, a symbolic sense of equality and openness could be established in the workplace. Workers could communicate freely without being intimidated by closed office doors, and worker efficiency and productivity would be sure to receive a boost as well so the theory goes.


In reality, the open-plan office may be falling short of its proposed benefits. Today, many employees who work in open-plan offices acknowledge that they do enjoy a sense of unique camaraderie with their coworkers and superiors that could not be duplicated in another setting. But, contrary to the layout’s very purpose, the majority of workers will admit that collaboration, productivity, creativity and satisfaction all suffer in an open-plan office environment. There are many contributing reasons, including lack of privacy and an increase in the amount of distractions that workers must face.


Lack of Privacy

In a recent article published by The New Yorker, workers report that they actually feel more intimidated approaching others due to the lack of privacy. The fact that everyone in the office will be able to overhear the conversation makes many anxious. Therefore, collaboration is being stymied instead of encouraged— so there is no boost in worker productivity. As an unintended consequence, a lack of privacy at work also seems to have an indirect correlation with how many sick days an employee takes; research shows that those with little privacy at work commonly take more sick days than those who have a high level of privacy in their working environment.


More Distractions

In addition to the lack of privacy, open-plan offices can also be much more distracting environments when compared to other types of office designs and layouts. With no barriers or solid walls, sounds travel freely. From the irritating noises of a printer to overhearing others’ chitchat, workers are often distracted or annoyed by these noises. Even the music employees may use to drown out other noises, greatly lowers workers’ ability to focus or concentrate. These distractions simply overwhelm the employees, leading to lower satisfaction and productivity.


Unfortunately, many companies and employees who have fully implemented and embraced an open-plan office are now dealing with the negative impacts that these offices can have on productivity, morale and collaboration. So how can you solve the problem? Several research studies conducted over the past few years seem to suggest that balance in the workplace is the key to solving many issues associated with an open-plan office. That is, having a balance between private spaces and open spaces that employees can use at their own digression.


How to Create Balance with the Right Furniture

At National Business Furniture, it is our mission to improve every workplace—that means providing appropriate furniture solutions for all workplaces to achieve a desirable and balanced working environment for their employees. In order to establish balance in an open-plan working environment, you first need to designate areas dedicated to teamwork and have other specific spaces that offer both quiet and privacy to employees.

Select supportive and appropriate furniture for the team to use in these collaborative areas. You can use dividers or panels to set this space apart or leave it open. Pick furniture that will both complement your company’s culture and suit your working needs.


Private work areas should be set apart with dividers or panels. You may even want to consider adding workstations and replacing the benching method of seating.

When adding dividers or panels and designating areas, it is important to remember balance. While you no longer want employees to be distracted and dissatisfied with an entirely open-plan office, you also don’t want to create an office full of divisions and borders that impede movement and flexibility while cutting workers off from one another. Creating a balanced office environment with both private space and open “teaming” areas is the best way to create a happy, engaged workforce.


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