Since Google took out its cubicles in the ’90s, more and more offices are going to open office design. Now, about 70% of American offices are open. An open office design looks like the workplace on the TV show “The Office;” aside from senior managers, no one has sectioned-off space to himself, just a desk and wastepaper basket in one portion of a large room. Proponents say that, by literally breaking down the barriers between coworkers, open offices foster camaraderie. They also claim that they encourage productivity by ensuring that coworkers can police each others time management. Now no one can spend hours playing video games and tab back to his spreadsheet when the boss comes in.
Actually, these claims are largely unsubstantiated, and if you’ve ever worked in a hostile office environment, you’ve probably already noticed how they contradict each other. While seclusion rarely helps good employee relationships, it also doesn’t exacerbate bad ones. Your current mix of employees will determine if an open office concept is right for your company. When co-workers fight, as happens in the best of workplaces, it can be useful for them to have a semi-private space to retreat into while they cool off. Even day-to-day, plenty of office workers can think of one co-worker with whom they can’t stand to be in the same room, and sometimes avoidance is the best option. The reason “The Office” was so funny was that the co-workers were constantly exposed to each other, constantly grating on each other’s nerves. That’s great for television, but not so great for a workplace.
With that being said, common usage is revealing some definite advantages to the open plan. The first, of course, is the one that drew designers to it in the first place: the cost. Cubicles are expensive, and many companies feel that eliminating that cost is worth any disadvantages down the road. Among the companies that are actually benefiting from that decision in the long term are the ones that want to attract investors. Traditional cubicles are usually aesthetically unappealing, are increasingly perceived as old-fashioned, and create a false sense of quietude. Open offices, by contrast, look sleek and modern, loud and bustling. This may annoy some workers, but it is appealing to outsiders.
The other winners are companies that are in flux. Traditional offices have to rearrange their cubicles after major hiring or downsizing events, which is expensive and annoying and may require a company to rent more space. In an open office, more people can fit into the same space, and moving desks rarely takes more than an hour.