A few years back, our 90-person firm underwent a workplace renovation. The end result was a mix of private offices and lots of open office space. And, judging by employee surveys and our recent Great Rated review, we seem to have struck the right balance.

But that doesn't mean our balanced approach will work for all entrepreneurs. In fact, one might argue that a workspaces is like a snowflake: different from every other one.

Being neither an architect nor a workspace expert, I turned to a few people I thought could provide solid tips you can follow whether you're constructing your very first office or, like us, refurbishing what already exists.

A Caveat About Open Space

Before you begin knocking down all the walls in your place of business, though, consider these stats:

  • According to the University of Southern California, "When we [employees] try to work on a project, we get interrupted every 11 minutes, and it takes a whopping 23 minutes to get back into the flow."
  • A Sydney University study of 42,000 U.S. office workers revealed that open-office layouts are disruptive due to uncontrollable noise. The study showed workers were dissatisfied by their inability to prevent co-workers from hearing what they said, and not being able to control what they hear from peers.
  • To further dampen your holiday mood, a Gallup survey found only 11 percent of workers around the world are engaged and inspired at work. Even the lowly New York Jets have higher productivity levels.

So, what's a small business owner to do? I turned to one of our clients, Steelcase, for some answers. They just completed an exhaustive study on privacy, and suggested the following tips to increase productivity and employee satisfaction:

1. Don't force a solution. Instead, design a workplace that provides choice and control for privacy and collaboration. We, for example, listened first to employee wants and needs. Then, we created a space that featured an open lounge area where employees could gather for impromptu events. We also provided workers with phone booths where they could make private calls.

2. Read the nonverbals. Most employees have ways of signaling they need to be left alone. In many offices, earbuds are an accepted way of signaling "do not disturb." People can also indicate a desire to be left alone by how they orient themselves in a room: Facing others encourages interaction; ducking behind a screen or a large plant says "I'm trying to be alone." My personal strategy is to hide under the desk.

3. Provide Choices. Allow people to choose where and how they get their jobs done. Depending on your industry, culture and available space and resources, this can be implemented in different ways:

  • Set aside certain locations within the office as private, quiet zones (a la our phone booths). This approach can be especially useful in managing noise disruptions.
  • Regardless of the availability of quiet zones, you can also capitalize on larger, private offices when executives are traveling. We almost always do that. Our open space workers know they can grab an empty, private office to hold quick team meetings, schedule a conference call with clients, etc. Use the spaces you don't think you have.

4. Avoid the Fishbowl. The trend toward greater transparency has led to more glass walls, especially in spaces that are situated near windows. But studies show too many windows can lead to that unpleasant feeling of "working in a fishbowl." And, who wants to feel like a goldfish? Here are two ways to avoid the fishbowl feel:

  • Add a simple band of frosted glass over the windows. So simple yet so elegant, no?
  • Encourage employees to create shielded spaces. A shielded space can include everyday objects such as books and plants. Workers need only to rearrange their furnishings and, voila, they've created a virtual "Do not disturb" sign that will reduce distractions and discourage conversations.

5. The buck stops with you. No matter how many choices you provide or how vocal your employees are in pleading their case, nothing will work unless you, the entrepreneur, create a culture that respects the individual's need for privacy. You alone set the tone when it comes to establishing the balance between privacy and mayhem. That's why I almost always keep my door open and actually enjoy interruptions (despite the 23 minutes it takes me to refocus on the task at hand). But employees will also see me close my door when I'm meeting with an important client or dealing with a sensitive human resources issue. I walk the talk by striking a balance.

Open offices are not the be-all and end-all. At Peppercomm, our workspace is a continual work in progress. We make sure to periodically check with employees on their satisfaction levels and, if change is needed, we make it.

We've found that when Peppercommers can select from a menu of office settings, they tend to be more engaged, productive, and ultimately more satisfied. Satisfaction equates to lower turnover, and lower turnover equates to success for a company of any size.