We've learned a lot about open office floor plans over the past decade, and not all of it is bad

Some of the top reasons companies switch to open offices include lower overhead costs associated with real estate and rent, to accommodate the more communal work style of millennials (who make up more than half of the workforce), and to right-size their office spaces since flex-scheduling and remote working policies have become more popular.  

There have also been some unforeseen side effects: 

  • 58 percent of employees say they need more private space for problem-solving.
  • There has been a  70 percent decrease in face-to-face interactions in open offices and a 56 percent increase in e-mail usage. 
  • 62 percent of employees say their office is too distracting. 

So, where do we go from here? In my opinion, the days of closed doors and enclosed cubicles are over. The workforce has changed, and this more traditional view of the office environment is outdated. 

As in most cases, the solution is a compromise between the two concepts. 

I've worked in an open office environment for nearly a year now. In the beginning, I'll admit, I had my reservations. I saw the stats and I feared for my productivity and personal space. But, I'm surprised to say that it's growing on me. I see and interact with more people in a week than I used to in a year, I fully adopted the minimalist mindset and have plenty of space even though my desk is half the size it used to be, and I'm loving all the natural light old offices used to block. 

My organization made the switch to an open office the right way. Here is the most important thing we considered that most organizations get wrong:

How our employees actually worked.

It's true; open offices are great for energy, collaboration, and transparency if your employees want it. Unfortunately, many organizations switch to open floor plans and force their employees into a new environment that's not conducive to their work style. For example, if you're going to sit and code all day than you usually like minimal distractions, personal space, and low lighting to help focus on your screens. Not the stereotypical traits of an open office layout. 

To make sure that we didn't disrupt our employees and made choices to cultivate productivity, we spent months analyzing the way people worked. We discovered that their work was project-based, that our environment was extremely collaborative across functions, and that most confidential conversations happened through email. As a result, we opted for an open floor plan and invested in technology that allowed for "hot-desking" (switching desks with ease), built numerous huddle rooms (up to five people) for employees to work on projects, added common areas for casual conversations, and grouped departments to boost communication.

For those occasions when confidentiality and individual work was a must, we built enclosed phone booth areas and invested in desks that could be configured for solitude. Allowing employees to bring in noise-canceling headphones helped too. 

Open offices aren't for every organization. Before you take the plunge and renovate or invest in a new office space, take the time to understand your culture and how your employees prefer to work. 

Published on: Jul 25, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.