Managing Teams

Rectifying a Bad Design Trend: How to Survive in an Open Office Plan

open office plan

It’s official: Workers loathe open office plans.

Scientific research confirms what workers already know. The trend that initially saved companies money on infrastructure and office space didn’t fulfill utopian visions of collaboration or increase employee productivity. In 2018, Harvard published the results of a study that shows that open office plans have exactly the opposite effect. The study’s lead, Ethan Bernstein, says, “[A]ll of the cues in open offices that we give off to get focused work done also make us less, not more, likely to interact with others.” Other problems have been linked to office plans—some of which can be unexpected and catastrophic, like increased incidents of sexual harassment.

But what does a manager do when they don’t have the option to move to a new facility or build walls and install doors? It’s possible to improve the lives and productivity of workers stuck in an open office environment without rebuilding or moving to a new property. Here’s how.

How to Be Productive—Even With an Open Office Plan

1. Reorganize the existing space.

Fast Company notes, “[O]pen plans are great at encouraging interaction between teams, which is useful when a company is trying to create new products. But they are terrible at encouraging interaction within teams, which is necessary for execution-based work.” If your facility has closed-door offices, then group teams around them. Position workstations so that small teams can use these private spaces to bounce ideas off one another and collaborate on initiatives.

2. Group employees into small teams.

An open office layout can be intimidating for even extroverted employees. Entrepreneur states, “In 2014, researchers Albert Kao and Ian Couzin published a study that found small groups often make more accurate decisions. Small teams represent the best of both worlds, because they can draw on collective wisdom without having to navigate the excess noise of the crowd.” Organizing your office into small desk groups or “pods” can help clarify department roles and put key people in contact with each other. It can also be helpful to separate groups with different job responsibilities; for example, the accounting department might not want to sit near the sales team if the salespeople need to be on the phone for most of the day.

3. Create quiet rooms or quiet spaces.

Creative minds need quiet; anything that doesn’t fade into background noise can be a distraction. One way to foment creativity and collaboration is to designate one or more meeting rooms as quiet areas where employees can escape the constant noise and distraction of an open office.

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4. Rework acoustics.

Hard surfaces are noisy. Furniture groupings and surface treatments affect the noise level and distractions in an open office plan. Sofas with high backs and arms and surfaces upholstered in sound-deadening fabrics help to quiet noise and offer privacy. Business magazine Inc. notes strategic furniture groupings allow “employees to flow from one work area to another without compromising on what’s required to get their work done.” You might also want to install a white noise machine, which muffles conversations and helps employees focus.

5. Use mobile screens and plant walls.

Privacy screens offer visual privacy, can help quiet noise, and can be moved where they’re needed without blocking light. Although they’re less portable, plant walls also add a visual barrier between teams and can make a corporate office environment more comfortable.

open office plan

6. Implement biophilic design.

Employees want more natural light at the office. Being surrounded in an artificial environment under harsh fluorescent lights negatively affects employees’ physical and mental health. If your office has windows, use them to the employees’ advantage. Biophilic design methods integrate natural materials (e.g., rocks, sand, wood) and plants into work environments—elements that make workers feel more relaxed in addition to improving the aesthetic appeal.

7. Implement assignment-based workspaces.

The jury is still out on this burgeoning trend, but some experts suggest doing away with assigned desks. Instead, they recommend designating workstations to certain types of tasks to keep employees active and encourage collaboration. In theory, circulating between different stations will motivate employees and make them feel more focused and refreshed. The “hotdesk” system could also facilitate communication between departments, because people will regularly interact with different staff members.

Be careful, though—other experts decry a lack of privacy with this approach. Without a designated place to stash one’s stuff, employees might not develop a sense of ownership or feel comfortable at work. Critics argue this system won’t make an open office plan any better (and could, in fact, make employees feel worse).

8. Adjust break times.

PBS’s Newshour reports that simple changes in scheduling—such as giving employees simultaneous lunch and/or coffee breaks and offering larger, more spacious lunch tables—boost productivity and improve socializing. Taking these initiatives could help offset any of the negative effects you might experience with an open office layout.

The Bottom Line: Provide Privacy and a Quiet Workspace

The problems arising from open office plan stem from two basic concerns: privacy and quiet. If you configure an open floor plan using strategic furniture groupings, designated meeting spaces, natural materials, bright lighting, and temporary barriers, you can create a space that’s conducive to collaboration, focus, and productivity. No office plan is perfect, but these steps will help mediate the situation until you can move into a new building or construct a new office space.

Want to learn more management tips? Read our guide to socializing with colleagues after you’re promoted. 


About the Author

Karen M. Smith has over 25 years of professional writing and editing experience, primarily acquired in corporate roles. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor tackling diverse topics and is a published author.