Do Open Office Plans Really Work?

Industries across the board are sinking serious dollars into redesigning their offices to be more open and airy. Are the whispers of improved productivity and employee engagement accurate? Let's dig in.

By Ettie Berneking

Jul 31 2019 at 9:49 a.m.

Obeya office environment
Photo courtesy OFS BrandsOver the past 20 years, the office environment has slowly been moving away from the traditional rows of offices and tall cubicle panels. Obeya, available through Grooms Office Environments, is a framework that brings settings and people together accordingly, based on the human needs of privacy and belonging.

When it comes to open offices, you either love them or hate them. But whether a lack of cubicle walls is a breath of fresh air or your daily nightmare, the open office workplace is gaining traction in 417-land. Industries across the board are sinking serious dollars into redesigning their offices to be more open and airy, and as you can imagine, this feng shui shift has created quite the buzz. Some swear open offices lead to more employee engagement while others say it actually decreases productivity. To dig deeper into the top myths and misunderstandings swirling around open office floor plans, we turned to Mykayla Thompson, an interior designer with Grooms Office Environments. Whether you’re wondering about how an open office can improve productivity or are curious about how it will impact your remodeling budget, Thompson has the answers.


Grooms Office Environments in Springfield MO

Biz 417: Do open offices lead to more collaboration?
Mykayla Thompson: When talking about an open office plan, collaboration is a frequently used word. The idea is that if you have fewer barriers and a better line of sight to your co-workers you will communicate and work together more often. But this only works when the open office design is done right. When an open office is not designed functionally for the client, it can be more distracting. We’ve seen that employees who are worried about distractions sometimes end up working from home or secluding themselves from others, which can lead to less collaboration. That’s not the only concern. If a coworker is worried about distracting others in the office, their answers might be shorter than usual, or they might feel like they can’t speak freely. An open office can certainly lead to collaboration when designed thoughtfully, but it can also cause teams to be less productive when it’s not. 

Biz 417: Does having an open office plan mean I am going to be sitting right next to my coworker and staring at them all day?
M.T.: This is a common concern we hear when talking with a client about designing an open office. We’ve heard this worry so much that I have stopped using the phrase “open office” as often. When I do use that term, clients tend to think I am going to take down every wall, put everyone at a 24-x-60-inch rectangle desk, and everyone will be staring at one another. This could not be further from the truth. What’s true is that over the past 20 years, the office environment has slowly been moving away from the traditional rows of offices and tall cubicle panels. It’s our job to take the client on a journey to find out what their next office landscape is going to look like. We believe that an open office is really a living office, with varying dimensions that meet the needs of everyone. The most important factor to an open office is that it’s unique to each client. 

Open office canvas landscape courtesy Herman Miller
Courtesy Herman MillerWhen considering an open office, keep in mind smaller breakout rooms, mood lighting, noise-cancelling panels and extra storage for employees.

Biz 417: Do open offices improve communication?
M.T.: Let’s talk about the common problem of noise pollution. Serious friction can be created by music volume, phone calls and loud snacks. Each office should be designed with intention and purpose. If an open office is not designed appropriately, the office environment can become loud and full of distractions and conversations. This causes more and more people to plug in their headphones and tune out their coworkers. This contradicts the idea of being able to see your coworkers and easily start a conversation. This issue can easily be combated by installing the appropriate layout, acoustical solutions and alternative places for employees to take phone calls, have short meetings, etc. 

Biz 417: Can an open office cost less money?
M.T.: This myth can go two ways. An open office can sometimes cut down construction cost if it means ditching architectural walls for offices or using tall partitions. But keep in mind that when an open office is designed poorly, employees can become distracted and less productive. When we work with clients on open office layouts, we often encourage them to include smaller breakout rooms, more mood lighting, noise-cancelling panels and extra storage units employees can use to hide their personal items. These features might cost extra, but they help create a good atmosphere and workspace within an open office.

About Grooms Office Environments: For more than 40 years, Grooms Office Environment has provided commercial interior design services including space planning, project and move management, healthcare and systems furniture as a full-service Herman Miller dealership. Whether you need to furnish a single office, a new building or even a single workout space, Grooms’ expertise can work for you. Grooms clients include Jack Henry, Prime Trucking, Oak Star Bank and CoxHealth Network.

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