The open concept floor plan has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity, finding its place in offices and homes across America for much of the 2000s. The backlash against the layout has likewise been building.

The Atlantic calls it a "curse," crediting HGTV with Americans' hunger for unnecessary and oppressive features and equating the open plan with a "quiet struggle between freedom and servitude." Quiet author Susan Cain argues that, in an office setting, collaboration-oriented layouts are distracting, particularly for introverts. A Danish study blames the open concept for an increase in employee sick days.

Many people who once championed the idea have turned their backs on it, but the open plan seems to have one ace left up its sleeve: upward mobility.

We're just not doing open offices right.

The open office plan does work--for some people. University of Queensland researcher Gemma Irving studied workers in different roles as they worked in open concept offices and found that employees working on collaboration-intensive projects-engineers, business performance specialists, instructional technologists-benefited from the ongoing ability to work with team members.

By eliminating the inflexibility of specific meeting times, these teams accomplished their work more quickly. In contrast, independent workers such as scientists didn't accrue the same benefits.

The Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA studied the open concept in terms of a company's bottom line, noting that employees' increased social interaction led to improved productivity. More communication occurred in open plan offices, leading to faster problem-solving, better information sharing, and decreases in stress.

One employee included in the UCLA study said, after three weeks of the open concept, "I have been feeling more a part of the team; previously I had poor access to information. ...I did not really understand why I'm doing my tasks."

Jim Belosic, co-founder and CEO of ShortStack, wrote an Inc.com article back in 2014 arguing that open concepts are particularly beneficial for leaders. He's still right today. When managers and executives sit with the rest of the team, they become more approachable. They're not ensconced in their offices, removed from the action--they're right in the thick of it. 

By hearing what others are talking about, you can fix problems more quickly or offer alternatives. You can't ignore issues, and that two-way communication builds trust.

You can't move up when you aren't seen.

Those who want to move up the ladder, take on additional responsibilities, or build their skill sets would be smart to place themselves in companies where the executives, employees, and interns all work in the same space. The International Facility Management Association reports that 42 percent of organizations mix leaders in with other employees.

The inclusivity of the one-size-fits-all open concept serves an interesting dual purpose: It conveys a neutral stance toward power dynamics, diluting the office hierarchy and making people co-workers rather than alphas and betas.

But it also allows current leaders to recognize leadership potential in those around them and gives employees an up-close look at what managers' daily work and responsibilities involve. This can lead those who like the idea of a promotion but not the stressors of it to self-select out, and it can light a fire in those who see ways their strengths align with leaders' duties.

JVZoo, an SaaS affiliate marketing company that was named to the 2017 Inc. 5000 list, has seen success from this structure. With a focus on remaining open from the start, the company designed its office to include everyone, from the CEO to the interns, in the same room.

The goal was to make upper management accessible and increase efficiency by enabling co-workers to ask questions or use each other as sounding boards. Laura Casselman, the company's CEO, notes that this openness has turned into a recruiting tool as well. "The open concept has helped with recruiting new employees, as they know that their ideas, good or bad, are always heard and met with feedback."

Being heard can depend on where you've been placed. Recently, Google situated the Google Brain team, its AI-focused research lab, next to the CEO's office. Facebook and Overstock have followed suit.

Google's move was considered noteworthy because it highlighted what the organization values by putting it in close proximity to the chief executive. "Any CEO thinks a lot about where people are sitting--who they can walk around and have casual conversations with," said Diane Greene, who has oversight of Google's cloud computing and is on Alphabet's board. "It is a very significant statement that he has moved that group right next him."

While open offices may be getting bad press lately, they can get employees closer to executives-and that's a big advantage that can't be overlooked. For those who are looking to move up, moving out into the open could be the best thing for their careers.

Published on: Aug 22, 2018