For all the talk a few years ago about the benefits of open offices--they facilitate collaboration and communication and make everyone equal, for example--some people are now backtracking. It turns out not everyone is thrilled with open offices because of the noise, the distractions, and the germs. Open offices may not be all they were billed to be, but does that mean organizations should go back to the more traditional, closed offices?
There's no real answer to this question because the debate often focuses solely on the physical office space. But an office by itself is just architecture and a building. What really makes the difference is the people and the environment of the office. Open offices are thought to be more forward thinking, but just because a company switches to an open office doesn't automatically make it a modern, future-proof organization. Likewise, an organization working in a closed office space isn't automatically traditional and stodgy. An office is merely the bones of the company that must be supported with the right culture and environment.
The future of work isn't really about office structure--it's about providing each employee the resources and environment to do their job to the best of their ability. The workplace is changing to customize the experience for employees to create an environment that showcases how and where they want to work. If an employee feels more engaged and productive in a private workspace, an organization should provide that, and if an employee feels more engaged in an open space, an organization should be able to provide that. Therefore, the true question isn't really if open offices are good or bad but rather if they are the right fit for each employee.
With that in mind, many companies are creating a hybrid type of office, which really is the workspace of the future. These types of offices have open spaces for employees who need to collaborate or who thrive on interaction, but it also has private workspaces and quieter offices for introverts or people who need to focus without the distraction of an open office. Investment start-up Betterment provides a number of options for employees that they can move between throughout the workday. There are desks that can be moved for conversations and small groups in an open space, as well as a room known as "The Library," where employees can have a quiet, comfortable environment with couches and tables. Throughout the office space are other small meeting rooms and breakfast nooks for comfortable conversations, plus individual private workspaces for employees who need to make a phone call or work on their own.
What really makes a hybrid office space function is the culture of the company. By creating a space where employees feel comfortable and engaged, no matter what it looks like, companies are showing employees that they are valued and is giving them the tools they need to succeed individually and as a group. No matter the design, an office should be a symbol of transparency and trust.
So back to the original question--are open offices spaces good or bad? When done correctly and in a way that complements company culture and empowers employees, they can be wonderful. But an open office isn't an automatic ticket to a successful, modern company--it must be paired with customization and the right environment and take into account the needs of the employees.
What is the design of your office space?