Open Plan Offices – The Advantages, Disadvantages and Office Design Solutions

According to research carried out by Savills in 2019, 80% of UK respondents worked in open plan office space with London having the highest use of open-plan offices at 89%. In 2020 Resonics reported that “Open plan offices are here to stay, with 73% of all offices in the UK considered to be open plan.” Today’s office space still favours open plan office layouts many of which are now geared towards agile and hybrid working.

Open plan offices come with a number of advantages and disadvantages. This article looks at the benefits and difficulties of open plan office space and outlines how to address issues in open plan offices through office design and refurbishment solutions.

The History of Open Plan

So how did open plan office layouts come about?

You may be surprised to know that open plan offices aren’t a new concept. In fact, the idea for open plan office spaces goes back as far as the 1930s when architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the SC Johnson company’s administration building in Racine, Wisconsin. The design of the office space was innovative and incorporated unusual columns which Frank Lloyd Wright described as “dendriform,” meaning shaped like a tree, which were also often described as “lily pad like” due to the shape at the top of the column where the column meets the ceiling. The open plan design made the office space brighter and lighter and gave staff more space and individual work areas.

Frank Lloyd Wright is quoted as saying “…the completed Administration Building [was] an architectural interpretation of modern business at its best… designed it to be as inspiring a place to work in as any cathedral ever was to worship in.”

In the 1960s office design further evolved and brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle created the design style of Bürolandschaft which translates as “office landscape”. The idea around Bürolandschaft was to create a more “egalitarian” space where everyone was equal, and which was less rigid in its layout than previous office layout designs. Walls were removed and replaced with plants and screens. The layout was devised to encourage staff to communicate and collaborate more effectively and efficiently.

With more office space moving to the Bürolandschaft design, noise and privacy concerns prompted a search for alternative office design ideas and from this Robert Propst’s “Action Office” was born. The Action office differed from Bürolandschaft in that although the office was still “open plan”, workstations and work areas became more modular and larger in size, they also became more enclosed and the space between work sections was also increased. Areas were specifically setup for different work tasks or projects to bring work colleagues together to facilitate collaboration and communication. This new office design provided an increased level of privacy but also meant that staff were less likely to interact with each other unless they were on the same project.

The Action Office laid the foundation for today’s activity based working (ABW), and agile office layouts. These different types of working are based on open plan layouts and build upon the Action Office idea by providing staff with workplace spaces which are set out to support the task with different settings for different tasks; or by enabling staff to work from anywhere from within the office.

The Advantages and Disadvantages Associated With Open Plan Offices

We know that open plan office space comes with a number of advantages and disadvantages, some of which are outlined below:

Advantages

Less Space Required

Compared to a “closed” office space where individual offices are built, an open plan office takes up around 3 times less space.

More Cost Effective

Open plan offices can be more cost-effective as they usually require less square footage per employee as space isn’t taken up by walls and partitions.

More Capacity

As a business you’ll have more capacity to take on new employees as you will have more space to be able to accommodate them.

Flexibility Built In

Open plan office space offers more flexibility and agility in the way the office layout is setup and can be reorganised or changed as required. Space can be adapted to suit different requirements e.g. where a new project requires a different team to work together or when a team needs to grow.

Better Communication

Where there are no barriers, communication tends to be easier. It’s more likely that staff will talk to each other rather than send emails if they can see each other across the workspace.

More Chances for Networking and Collaboration

Networking and collaboration are more likely when staff are working closely together. It’s easier to strike up conversations and discuss work without the barrier of walls or partitioning.

Increased Creativity

Open plan offices can increase creativity as different teams can communicate with each other rather than being in different enclosed spaces away from each other. Being able to brainstorm ideas on the spur of the moment or simply when a topic is naturally being discussed can make it easier for the free flow of thoughts and ideas.

Mentoring Is Easier

Open plan space brings staff from all levels together so that staff with different levels of expertise can help each other. This is likely to greatly benefit junior members of staff and provide them with both formal and informal mentoring. There are less likely to be mentoring opportunities where senior staff are in private offices away from more junior staff members.

Friendlier Workplace

Bringing everyone together can help to develop to a more friendly workplace environment. Company culture can be improved when staff work in an open plan environment as everyone is treated equally and you avoid people working in isolation.

Disadvantages

Noise

Where there is no barrier to break up noise within an office space noise levels are more likely to be higher. We know that high noise levels tends to be one of the most common issues and can be a major stressor and bugbear when it comes to open plan offices. Noise also travels farther when there are no barriers to stop it.

Privacy Issues

Open plan offices aren’t conducive to any work that requires privacy.This includes any work where private conversations or work on private documents are required. Staff may be reluctant to have personal or sensitive conversations with other staff, managers, or customers if they can be overheard. Senior staff members may also find it hard to complete work or to communicate to staff where confidentiality is required.

Getting Away From the Hustle and Bustle

The need to take a break and unwind from work is a fundamental necessity for health and wellbeing. Research has also shown that the brain needs to be able to “reboot” by stepping away from the hustle and bustle of a busy work environment and taking time out is vital for the health of employees. Where mental and physical health is affected in the office this in turn can cause high levels of stress and have an impact on productivity and creativity.

Robert Pozen, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management says that “taking a break every 75 and 90 minutes is the period of time where you can concentrate and get a lot of work done. When people do a task and then take a break for 15 minutes, they help their brain consolidate information and retain it better. That’s what’s happening, physiology during breaks.”

“Getting away” can be hard to achieve in an open plan office if there are no areas which provide quiet or privacy.

Stress Levels

Open plan offices can be the cause of increased stress levels and worsen mood. This is mostly due to increased noise levels which make it harder for staff to focus and therefore impacts their ability to complete their work tasks.

Distractions

Many staff find it very hard to focus and become easily distracted when in an open plan office. Telephone conversations, other staff chatting, colleagues interrupting, and equipment noise can all lead to interruptions in staff workflow which in turn impacts a person’s ability to concentrate.

Decreased Productivity and Creativity

Although some staff may thrive in an open plan office layout and find that it’s easier to interact with colleagues, some staff may find it impacts their productivity and creativity, leaving them finding it hard to meet deadlines, complete work tasks or find ideas to move a project forward. According to a Steelcase study of more than 10,500 employees office workers, can lose as much as 86 minutes per day due to distractions.

Donna Flynn, Director of Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures says:“External distractions —things like sound or what we see— can be controlled in the environment, but it’s really up to each individual to figure out how to control internal distractions. A big insight from our research was that the way each person controls distractions is very different.”

Health and Wellbeing

The mental and physical health and wellbeing of staff can suffer in open plan office space. Open plan office space has been shown to be associated with higher levels of sick days than staff working in enclosed or partitioned offices.

Tackling Open Plan Office Disadvantages With Office Refurbishment Solutions

An open plan office comes with many advantages but how do you tackle the disadvantages? Below we outline three of the many ways that an office refurbishment can mitigate the top issues of open plan office space.

Combating Noise

There are several ways that an office refurbishment can combat the issue of noise within an open plan office. However it’s important to consider ceilings, walls and flooring as a whole when it comes to mitigation as tackling each of these areas in isolation will not work as well.

Consider a suspended ceiling to absorb noise and reduce reverberation. A suspended celling will also prevent sound from travelling to adjacent areas.

Noise can also be managed by changing the placement and spacing of desks and workstations. Instead of placing staff desks directly in line of sight which allows sound to travel in a direct path, arrange desks in groupings for team work or by projects. This can help to confine and reduce noise to smaller areas preventing it from affecting the whole office.

Acoustic panels and screens can be installed on ceilings and walls and can play a vital role in absorbing sound, preventing it from jumping around a room.  Desk dividers create a physical barrier that act in the same way as acoustic panels to block noise. Acoustic office pods can also be installed as a way to isolate and dampen noise while providing additional meeting spaces.

Soft surfaces absorb sounds and prevent them from reflecting back into a room making for a quieter environment. It’s therefore worth using carpets and rugs rather than hard flooring to reduce footfall noise. 

Plants in the office can act as a noise barrier and help to reduce office noise.

Providing Privacy

A well-designed office layout can provide privacy in an open plan office space. This can be achieved through a variety of measures including ensuring “work zones” are kept separate from other team, collaborative or social areas. The setting up of “quiet work areas” can provide privacy when required. Acoustic office pods can also provide a great way to achieve private work spaces.

Where separate private areas are not possible the installation of modular furniture and moveable privacy screens or partitions can enable staff to adapt their work area and tailor their workspace for privacy as and when required. This type of setup allows staff to easily transform work areas into completely open or semi-private spaces as needed.

Bookcases, storage furniture, cabinet planting, plant containers and living plant walls can all be used as effective noise absorbers to stop noise bouncing around the office space. The use of acoustic panels can further reduce and minimise office sound from travelling throughout the office providing some degree of privacy and preventing other members of staff from overhearing or being distracted by staff talking or when making private phone calls.

Break Out Areas

Providing a break out area in an open plan office environment can be achieved by setting up something as simple as a quiet area with a comfortable chair, an area which has comfy furniture where people can relax, a collaborative break out area which enables staff to come together to socialise; a kitchen or tea point to provide employees with a chance to have a lunchtime or breaktime away from their desk and computer screens or a ”chill out” area with space for a ping pong or table tennis table.

By factoring in the need for “get away areas” into an office space staff can take breaks and revitalise as and when required.

We’ve covered three of the main open plan office issues above with some of the ways to tackle them. Your office refurbishment company will be able to provide the expertise to tackle other known open plan office challenges and provide you with solutions during the planning and design stages of your office refurbishment project.

JBH Refurbishments, Experts In Office Design and Refurbishment

JBH Refurbishments have over 30+ years experience in office design, office refurbishment and fit outs. We can advise on all aspects of your Kent or London office refurbishment. We understand what’s required to carry out a refurbishment to the highest standards. We can provide the right expertise for your project. Contact us via our contact form or by calling us on 0333 207 0339 today for a free on-site consultation.


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