Open plan offices – a pleasure or a pain?

From an organisation’s point of view, open plan offices have lower a carbon footprint than private offices and they’re cheap. They can be cheap and nasty or cheap and reasonably pleasant, depending on how much the organisation is willing to pay for the comfort and productivity of their employees.

What do you think about them? Are they are great way to help people communicate and innovate? Do they offer an atmosphere of excitement and energy?

Or are they just a low-cost and easy way to keep an eye on people and make sure they’re working? Do they reduce productivity because they’re noisy and filled with distractions? Are they unpleasant because they make people feel like battery hens? Do they damage working relationships because people get annoyed with each other’s glaringly obvious personal habits – untidy desks, slurping smelly lunches, speaking loudly on the ‘phone, humming tunelessly to themselves… (Clearly, good manners, common sense and emotional intelligence on the part of employees are a must in open workspaces.)

Open plan offices have been around for a long time and they can work well when people need to work collaboratively. They don’t work well when people need to concentrate and they don’t work well when they make people feel like they have no control over their working environment.

You can get around those two big minuses with good planning and flexibility. You can have readily available ‘quiet rooms’ where people can take work, meeting rooms when people need to get together to discuss issues and innovate solutions, and you can let people personalise their ‘space’. People can work from home when they need to concentrate or when they have a cold, (germs spread faster in open spaces). You can seat people with a low level of tolerance for noise and distractions in the quietest part of the office.

In Germany and Scandinavia, people generally have their own office with a door and a window they can open and shut. In the USA, the cubicle is favoured. But maybe private offices, cubicles and open plan offices will all eventually go the way of the dodo, as remote working, workplace hubs and new ways of designing offices, with free-flowing spaces, take hold. I’ve seen an office in Switzerland where employees can work at sofas, reclining chairs, cafe-style tables or outside in a lovely garden. Flexibility, informality and a feeling of coziness, friendliness and homeliness are shaping up to be the go for offices of the future.

In the meantime, what can you do to make your own workspace, and the workspace of your team, more conducive to productivity, cooperation, innovation and effective working relationships?

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