5 Improvements That Will Make Your Open-Plan Office More Effective

December 10, 2018

By Christa Fletcher(opens in new tab), contributor at The Underground Group

In short:

  • Open-plan offices are designed to promote collaboration and efficiency, however poor implementation sometimes leads to opposite results.

  • Interior designers and scientific research say that no matter what kind of company you lead, the open-plan design can work for you. 

  • They recommend reflecting company values with your office design while leaving room for growth and installing features that facilitate both collaborative and individual work.

U.S. companies have been trading cubicles for open-plan offices for nearly a decade now. Today, more than 70 percent of us(opens in new tab) work in shared spaces like these. Some are fans, and many aren’t(opens in new tab).

The proliferation of open-plan offices has allowed for much research on which elements actually serve to increase productivity and happiness and which don’t. Most studies show that open-plan offices stifle productivity, increase stress and sickness(opens in new tab) and, ironically, lead to less face-to-face interaction among employees. Some, however, suggest that if designed “correctly,” open plans can actually boost happiness and productivity(opens in new tab).

Open plans may not be every employee’s cup of tea, but it’s almost certain the cubicle is never coming back(opens in new tab). So, what have we learned about open-plan offices that we can use to improve upon the model?

1. Open-plan offices work best when they reflect your core values.

A survey from the Harvard Business Review(opens in new tab) found that offices were more productive when they represented what companies do and how they work. Employees in these offices reported feeling happier and that they could work well both together and independently. 

To reflect its core values in an open-plan office, for example, a creative agency might boost ideation with an artistic aesthetic and use color and light to inspire employees and incorporating whimsical, modern spaces for both independent work and casual meetings. A law firm, meanwhile, might choose to support its primary function of private meetings with clients. It would ensure its open-plan office featured private areas with frosted glass walls, to create a welcoming feel while maintaining privacy. 

Airbnb's San Francisco headquarters is a blend of open desks, airy conference rooms and casual seating.

2. Distractions are an open plan’s downfall.

Open plans increase visibility for employees, who can see what each other are working on and help each other when needed, and that’s a positive. University of Queensland researcher Gemma Irving recently conducted a study of open-plan offices to see if they irked or inspired employees. She found that, “Employees valued getting instant help from their team members(opens in new tab) in the open plan, instead of being distracted or having issues with privacy. Team members could access shared whiteboards, flipcharts and drawings to help coordination and improve team productivity.” 

However, those successful open-plan offices also included ways for employees to guard their individual work time, such as “do not disturb” signs individuals could post at their desks. Anecdotal research suggests(opens in new tab) that when private rooms, cubes and spaces are readily available(opens in new tab) for private work, employees become happier with their open-plan environment.

3. Homey furniture is a trend worth considering.

Infusing your open-plan office with a homey feel can boost your team’s happiness. The inclusion of domestic amenities is a more recent add to the open-office aesthetic: While ping-pong tables and slides once reigned at the start of the era, plush couches and throw blankets are now increasingly popular, said Molly Torres, a designer with Homepolish.

Top lifestyle brands are leading this trend, said Torres, whose colleagues at Homepolish have infused hominess into their office designs for Goop(opens in new tab), TwelveNYC(opens in new tab) and Catbird(opens in new tab).

Many companies are trying to boost enjoyment of their open-plan workspaces via resimercial style(opens in new tab), which brings in the homey feel of residential furniture, said Torres. Resimercial design is a way companies can “counter” the demands placed on employees, she said. Bringing home comforts like couches, pool tables and bar stools(opens in new tab) into the workplace can result in employees spending more time there while feeling more relaxed and motivated.

“I recently designed an office for Foundation, a female-founded communications and talent management agency in SoHo,” said Torres. “Because my client wanted a ‘resimercial’ environment that felt cozy like a home, I opted to stick with an open plan, utilizing modern lighting and large area rugs as a way to visually separate spaces.”

Torres infused the Foundation offices with homey touches. (credit: Homepolish(opens in new tab))


4. Conference rooms must be easy to book.

Since open-format offices can get noisy, the ability to reserve private, closed-door space is critical in allowing your employees to feel a sense of privacy when needed. The key is making sure you have enough rooms to accommodate your teams. For open-plan workspaces, the general rule is(opens in new tab) one conference room for every 10 employees. 

An internal booking software is ideal for streamlining the scheduling process, allowing employees to see which rooms are open at any given time. (You might consider adding an interactive scheduling tablet outside the room(opens in new tab), which digitally alerts employees to availability and allows them to book meetings on-the-spot.) As for layout, most open-plan offices have desks in the middle and conference rooms around the perimeter of the workspace.

5. Leave room to change and grow.

The most crucial aspect of having an open-format office is being open to suggestions or change. An open-door policy and genuine openness to staff feedback is the best way to embrace the qualities of this type of space and the new work culture it brings.

Additionally, Torres suggested that open-plan office leaders “leave space to grow! Otherwise, you'll grow out of the space you've invested tons of time, money and energy in way sooner than you think.

“I try to employ a ‘growing-in-place’ model in office design where simple design choices allow companies to work in their offices longer without having to upgrade to a larger office.”

Sounds like a solid investment, indeed.

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