Open Plan Offices

Are open plan offices a good idea and how can they be improved?

The open plan office has a fairly long history. Henry Ford and industrialists such as Frederick Winslow Taylor promoted the idea of large rows of desks where clerks could perform repetitive tasks. The 1950s and 1960s ushered in specialist companies which designed furniture for the open plan office including cubicles, desks and even potted plants.

Open plan led to hot-desking in many organizations where employees could (or were encouraged to) switch desks everyday thus ensuring better connections with their colleagues – or at least that was the aim. Knowledge-based companies, startups and online businesses brought about a new type of open plan which combines cubicles, open desks, private offices and meeting rooms.

Open offices - good or bad?

Disadvantages of Open Plan

Studies have shown that open plan working isnoisier and more chaotic and may lead to higher blood pressure and stress and result in increased conflicts between staff members in addition to greater staff turnover (Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management). It has been noted that workers in such offices often resort to email and mobile messages rather than speaking to their colleagues thus negating one of the core aims of open plan working. Greater auditory and visual distractions in these work places have been shown to lead to lower productivity and more time wasting.

Benefits of Open Plan

It’s all about removing barriers. Private offices enforce the idea that some are better than others. People will collaborate with their colleagues more and new ideas will spark like a match. When a team need to come up with new ideas open plan offices may come into their own but once it comes to implementing those ideas the noise and distractions present in such an environment may hinder the process. Of course, it doesn’t take an expert to realize that these types of offices continue to be constructed because they are cheap. Reducing space for employees can result in massive savings for companies and open plan offices mean fewer doors, windows, trash cans, air conditioning units, etc..
Open offices - good or bad?

Modern Usage

Even the experts seem to agree that open plan offices just don’t suit everyone and every situation. A Harvard Business School study revealed that face-to-face interaction is reduced by 70% in open plan spaces while the use of email and messaging increases by nearly a half.

Google’s new offices still incorporate open plan working but they combine this with large glass meeting rooms, private offices and booths. But still, modern corporations which claim to take the welfare of their employees to heart continue to build more and more open offices. Facebook claim to have the world’s largest open plan offices although, while Zuckerberg claims to use a small desk in the communal area, it seems that, in reality, he spends much of his time in private meetings rooms.
Open offices - good or bad?
Open offices - good or bad?

Can they be improved?

Some large companies did try to go a different way. During the Jobs era at Pixar, workers were based in individual offices and up to 6 employees in adjacent offices could share a collaborative space when necessary

WeWork is maybe the best example of modern open planning but what distinguishes it from the others is its flexibility. The company claims to compress people into smaller working spaces without sacrificing satisfaction. A large variety of seating arrangements including private offices, meeting rooms and call booths ensure that people can collaborate with their colleagues (and colleagues from other companies) when they need to but also find a quiet space when the need to focus arises.

So what can be done to improve open plan offices if we have to keep them? Personalizing them with plants, photos and toys will make it feel more ‘you’ even if there is flexible seating. Proper planning helps too – make sure teams or departments are located near one another and thing about inter-departmental communication so it’s easy for communication to occur between departments which regularly need to interact with one another.

Improving Office Layouts

Open offices - good or bad?


Wireless mice and keyboards allow for more comfortable arrangements when sitting in front of the computer. Keyboard keys should be solid but quiet while a good mouse should be comfortable to hold and ball-less is a must.

Screens should be large enough that works don't strain their eyes. Working all day on a 13" screen isn't really an option for most people.

Open offices - good or bad?


They need to look good and feel good. A mesh-backed chair ensures you’ll stay cool even on the hottest days and lumbar support offers more protection for the lower back.

Don't forget to pay attention to height and mobility. Not everyone is the same height or girth so ensure chairs are height-adjustable and wide enough for all of your employees.

Open offices - good or bad?


Standing desks are all the rage these days (see Standing Desks article) but whatever you go for make sure there is enough space. Drawer space can help to reduce clutter and an L-shaped desk can provide for more space.

The height of desks needs to be suitable for both the tallest and shortest of employees and anybody sitting there must feel comfortable at all times.

Open offices - good or bad?


Daylight is ideal and bring in as much of it as you can through large, open windows and skylights. Lights with a color temperature of more than 5000k create a better perception of daylight.

Avoid fluorescent lights where possible as studies show that these cause migraines and affect sleep patterns. Smaller and personal lamps can provide choice and prove to be softer than conventional choices.