It's a fact: open office plans don't work for all employees.

Despite the intention being to foster communication and teamwork, people find the lack of privacy distracting. They'll even manufacture privacy by placing obstacles on their desks that delineate their boundaries or investing in noise-canceling headphones. Those who are able to work from home choose to do so more often, leading to an increase in electronic communication, not a decrease. Even those in open offices communicated more through electronic forms, a study conducted by The Royal Society found. For the study subjects, face-to-face interaction decreased by a whopping 70%.

Open Offices: Are They Killing Creativity?

But creative employees could have told us that. A WeTransfer study showed 65% of creatively minded employees require quiet to work. While a certain amount of white noise can actually spawn inspiration, anything that does not blend into mild background noise will quash the flow of ideas. Frustrated workers "check out" by donning headphones or finding somewhere else to work, breaking up the camaraderie intended by an open office.

Another issue is visual privacy. Those who are on display are less likely to try new processes or test ideas for creative solutions to company problems. People are comfortable with the familiar and would rather not risk scrutiny or judgment from coworkers and managers in close proximity if there's a chance their attempts at innovation could fail in front of an audience.

So what's an employer to do?

The rise of real estate costs and building overhead may dictate an open office redesign, where the average square footage afforded to workers has fallen from 225 square feet per employee in 2010 to 151 square feet by 2017.

If not all your workers are present every single day, does it make sense to have a desk for every person? Not always.

But how do you keep your office design from quashing the very thing you're hoping to foster within your company?

Create Overlap Zones

Collaboration doesn't necessarily happen automatically just because people sit closer together. Zonal overlaps--an area where employees run into each other, but not their primary workspace--have shown increased collaboration among employees. This way, people have room to associate when they want to, but have somewhere to retreat when their work requires more focus.

Add Quiet Rooms

It's been said before, and will be again. No one can concentrate near the employee who holds conference calls on speakerphone while tossing a tennis ball at the nearest wall. People can't focus when one person's persistent cough has them reaching for the hand sanitizer every few minutes. For those workers who require quiet at times, giving them a place to go to ensure concentration makes for a happy, cohesive group of employees who aren't sniping at each other to "keep it down" when others are working loudly nearby. Different types of work require different approaches, and not everybody works the same as everyone else. Variety is the spice of life, but it's also difficult to navigate if Jane's variety doesn't match Steven's.

If you don't have a lot of space to reconfigure quiet versus collaborative areas, consider a simpler solution: take a portion of your conference rooms out of the reservation booking system. This means there's always a place someone who needs a little peace can retreat to when it's required, and yet you don't have any major renovations to complete.

Consider Acoustics Carefully

A single conversation in a hushed environment, such as a library, will carry, and those nearby attempting to concentrate will probably be distracted. However, a cafeteria with a low hum of chatter doesn't stop people from reading a book or working on a crossword on their lunch break. This kind of noise awareness can help you.

Consider adjacencies and match the energy of the nearby workspaces to each other. Brainstorming areas should be near circulation spots or other noisy places, where the people collaborating won't be disturbed by a pair of conversing managers walking past, but someone trying to write a proposal might be.

The added benefit of grouping collaborative spaces together is that when people use them, they're drawn away from those at their desks who are concentrating.

Your choice of furniture can help with this. Sofas with high backs and sides can close people in, and their fabric can absorb sound, providing much needed privacy in an otherwise open environment. Offer plenty of choice of furniture groupings, too. This allows employees to flow from one work area to another without compromising on what's required to get their work done. Even something simple as a swing-arm lamp with a large shade people can adjust to block out visual distractions can be helpful.

Reduce Visual Distractions

There's a trick with open office designs, where a wide space is easier to breathe in and lets in a significant amount of light, but across the visual field, there are plenty of distractions. So how does one consider all the bodies in the room at the same time as ensuring they have access to natural light, perhaps a view of the inspiring outdoors, and doesn't close them in? Partitions. Designers are getting more creative than ever with versatile partitions that give the illusion of visual privacy but don't close everything in. Many of them are mobile, and can be configured in a variety of shapes and sizes, so you have all the flexibility you need to move them around the office without disrupting the flow of energy.

Plant walls are another great source of inspiration that provide a barrier to visual distraction. With the added benefit of improving the air quality in your office, incorporating a biophilic element to your office can help those creative minds find the peace they need to keep the ideas coming.

70% of offices in the US are open offices, with many companies enticed into designing them that way by the cost savings and the promise of increased productivity. Time and experience has shown this may not be the best environment, and maybe never was.

Emerging from the trends and studies is the idea that a semi-open office may be the key to keeping employees from feeling untethered and distracted, forced to create their own privacy that goes against the entire purpose of the open office.

By considering all the design angles--particularly for those employees for whom creativity is not a faucet that can be turned on and off at will--companies can show employees they're listening, and those noise canceling headphones are no longer necessary.

Published on: Jan 29, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.