Is an open office plan right for my organization? Elaine Varelas explores the ins and outs of office design

Open office plans have gained popularity in recent years, and some organizations may be wondering if it's time to take the leap and take down some walls. Each organization's business and workforce needs are different, so what's right for one company might not be the best fit for another. Elaine Varelas advises on how to make the right design choice for your company's people and image.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: Now that we’ve had several years of open floor plan offices vs. traditional office spaces, what’s the verdict on what works best? My company is moving soon and we’re deciding on what the space should look like. What has the research shown about the pros and cons of each set up?

A: The best office layout should be decided based on meeting your specific business needs, maximizing productivity of your staff, and aligning with the brand of your organization. By and large, rows and rows of small, windowless offices have lost their appeal, and people are looking for office space with more natural light and spaces designed to foster informal interactions, especially among employees who may not share reporting relationships or team structures. That said, the open office trend might be great for one organization, but a poor fit for another, so while considering the pros and cons is a good place to start, it can’t be done in a vacuum. Take your company’s unique needs, workforce, and brand into consideration as you make this decision.

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Modern office spaces have become more and more creative in recent years, and the ultimate goal is to provide more people with the perks of better office space driving productivity. Typically, companies aren’t unnecessarily tearing down walls if everyone already has a nice office set up. Instead, it’s done in the spirit of redistributing the perks of nicer office space—windows and natural light, extra space—to more people throughout the organization. A range of industries have become more aware of how the workplace environment impacts employee mood, morale, and productivity.

There are also very practical considerations, as in many geographies and with a good economy, the cost of real estate is one of the most significant costs for any company. With this in mind, it’s worth asking whether the C-suite all need oversized offices or if those square feet can be used for a broader impact? Hoteling offices is another practice on the rise, in which there are no assigned offices, and employees reserve appropriate space at one of multiple locations for their needs on a daily basis. While employees may find it challenging not to have a designated place for personal possessions or other storage needs, hoteling creates a dynamic environment in which mobility and productivity thrive. If an employee knows she has an important client call one day, she might reserve a more private space; if her team is brainstorming around a new project, they might all gather in some comfy armchairs around a whiteboard. Keep in mind, if this is a route your company decides to take in your new office design, you need to make sure tech issues are planned for and that technology is made convenient for all to use, so productivity can be maximized.

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An open floor plan will also call for some adjustments in behavior and office norms, so you should be prepared for that shift as well. In a shared, open space, employees should avoid lunches with strong odors, loud eating, loud talking, or any other disruptive or unappealing behaviors. Employees may also find themselves turning to new tools for comfort, convenience, and productivity, such as noise cancelling headphones. For all of its benefits, open floor plans will have highs and lows when it comes to dealing with disruptions and privacy. As such, you’ll want to build available private offices for confidential conversations or quiet focused work. Invest in appropriate equipment as well—ergonomic furniture, sound absorbing walls, and white noise machines are all good options.

Ultimately, your office space should reflect and support the brand and business of the organization. Think of the reason behind the design. Are you trying to project an image of creativity, openness, comfort, or spontaneity? Then an open office might be a great fit. What is your client and employee base like and how will they react to the office design? Does it support the image you want your clients to have of you? Does it align with the day-to-day needs of the employees on the ground? You might consider touring other spaces to get a real sense before making a decision. Think of similar companies to you in terms of brand or image and learn more about what they’re doing with their space.

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Researching the pros and cons is important, but a bigger part is determining what your specific company and brand needs are, how you want your clients to feel when they come in, and what your employees think is the best way to increase productivity and engagement.