The Great Office Debate: Open Seating or Not?

August 31, 2016

The past few years have seen a polarizing debate around the idea of an open office plan. It seems that people either strongly support an open office where employees sit in an open room or strongly favor a more classic private office approach to workplace design. We work with clients who have preconceived notions and ideas about what is best for their company, often from research they’ve done. The problem is that it’s not difficult to find an article in support of either side.

 

There have been articles and studies written in support of an open office plan, against the open office plan, and somewhere in between. The Washington Post published an article titled, “Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.” This was quickly followed by an article from Work Design Magazine titled, “Google didn’t ‘get it wrong’: a deeper look into that recent WAPO piece about open offices.”

 

So, what is the correct answer? Which office arrangement is best?

 

Many people mistakenly believe that an open office plan is synonymous with the sales floor in the movie Wolf of Wall Street.

 

A study by Workplace Insight noted that, "the most obvious manifestation of culture in an office is its design." At bldg we believe that the way a space inhibits or promotes interaction and culture is just as much a part of the design as the carpeting choices and wall colors. The layout of an office is an opportunity to add value to the organization and employees who work there.

 

We don’t believe in one size fits all. Our clients differ from each other in many ways. Number of employees, business industry, square feet of space available, culture, budget, and location all play into the decision of office arrangement. We think that open office spaces work well for some companies, private offices work well for others and most importantly, there are a lot of creative options in between. We love to think creatively about how to utilize space in unique ways.

 

Let's look at several options.

Above, you see two Don Draper-esque private offices with enough space for personal meetings (one slightly larger than the other). In this type of plan, space is often allocated based on corporate hierarchy. An employee working in one of these offices can conduct all business from his or her office, which may result in less spontaneous interaction with other employees. 

In this plan, the employee still has a private office but without personal meeting space. The small meeting room next door allows for quick access but also gives other employees the opportunity to utilize the meeting space. Depending on a company's needs, a slightly smaller private office with the resulting public space next door might be the better option.

 

We call the set up above "the front porch." We have used this solution where companies have made the transition to an open space plan and felt it was important to include the executive team in the transition in order to promote interaction, communication and collaboration. However, employees with direct reports still needed quick access to private space for meetings and phone calls on an unpredictable schedule. Thus, we designed a space wherein they do most of their work on "the front porch" (where their computers live) but can move into the small meeting space for private conversations. See example here.

 

 

The above plan provides open seating at a long table or "bench" (top left) that can be modified to have varying degrees of storage and screening. A lounge space provides a causal work place for small meetings or laptop work (think coffee shop style). Small private spaces provide options for concentrated, heads-down work.

 

For scale, the above image shows the previous four office space plan options in one diagram. This gives a better sense of space. The private offices at the top left take up the most space per person with the open office seating in the bottom right allocating the least amount of personal space per person.

 

When we're determining what will work best for a client it's clear from just a few examples how many things come into play. Does the company promote spontaneous meetings and interaction? Do they need lots of meeting space? Do employees have many conference calls? Based on company culture will individual contributors feel comfortable approaching a manager who sits in an office? Do the employees have laptops? The "best" solution is not so black and white once we start to consider so many factors.

 

We'll wrap up with two examples of open space plans that have been very successful for two of our clients. 

 

 

This company wanted a fully open seating plan but also wanted to provide areas for informal meetings along with some private spaces. The light blue denotes open seating in a benching model (something like this). In this setup each person has a desk along the "bench" with an external monitor and small storage cube. 

 

The green areas are informal seating + meeting spaces — comfy couches, chairs, laptop stands, etc. The dark blue spaces are private meeting rooms with tv's and speaker phones. Finally, the smaller purple spaces are phone booths that each have a phone and an external monitor. 

 

The variety of spaces integrated into this office provide a collaborative environment with plenty of private space for meetings, calls, quick chats, and down time. The benching system allows for not only more employees but also more diverse and numerous meeting spaces. While decreasing the size of the individual workstation allowed this company to make this square footage work for them for a longer period of time, it also gave people equal access to natural light and a number of other spaces to choose from when concentrated work or meetings arose.

 

 

The above space plan combines the traditional office with a different take on an open seating plan. Again, light blue represents desks, green equals lounge areas and blue denotes meeting rooms. In this image though, the purple represents standing height counters. We incorporated a counter between the workstations for visual privacy, standing work, or impromptu team meetings. To see this what this looks like check out the second photo on this page

 

Rather than installing typical systems furniture (like the bench system), we used a combination of drywall partitions and casegoods to create the workstations (in laymen's terms — we custom designed these stations as opposed to buying pre-made desk kits). This approach allows for more flexibility in spacing than systems furniture which is constrained to incremental dimensions. This meant we were able to plan the space more efficiently and were able to decrease the amount of space they lease by almost 1000 square feet. 

 

These are just two examples of the many ways that open seating plans can be creatively and functionally arranged. Both steer clear of the ever feared cubicle setup, but still use space efficiently and encourage employee interaction and collaboration.

Office culture affects employee productivity, retainment and overall happiness. We believe office design is directly related to company culture and it's our job to ensure we find the absolute best solution for each of our clients. So which option is better? Neither. Let's work together to figure out what's best for your company!

 

 

 

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