Is an open office suitable for your startup?

Almost everyone who works in business today is familiar with open office design. Instead of dividing offices with cubicles or walls, the open office concept places employees among each other in open, communal work spaces. Developed in Germany in the mid-20th century, open office plans really took root in the US in the early 2000s, gaining traction among East Coast creative agencies, Silicon Valley tech companies and other forward-thinking companies. Today, an open office is the norm, with roughly 70 percent of American offices using an open floor plan.

As open offices become more established, the cracks in the design are starting to become visible. While proponents of the concept claim it promotes collaboration, camaraderie, flexibility and comfort, employees complain of recurring distractions, a lack of privacy and a sense of exposure in the workplace. Furthermore, studies appear to refute many of its touted benefits, suggesting that open offices can actually lead to lower productivity, less collaboration, and damaged employee morale.

As younger generations of talent chafe at the open office concept and evidence against it continues to mount, employers will need to find new designs that keep them competitive in today’s business climate. In recent years, designers have begun testing a variety of new plans that aim to ditch the negatives of open office floor plans while optimizing their benefits. Below we’ll talk more about the pros and cons of open office floor plans, and we’ll discuss promising alternatives to their one-size-fits-all approach.

The benefits of an open office design

Open offices were introduced to correct the limitations of private offices or office space-dependent designs in an evolving corporate culture. Separating employees from each other, it turned out, stifled their ability to work together and promoted an unhealthy, individualistic office culture. Proponents of the design, especially among management, believe it solves these problems in many ways.


Fewer barriers between team members create a more collaborative environment. Employees isolated in private workspaces may not see themselves as part of a team, or may feel discouraged from seeking a colleague’s input or advice.

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Likewise, physical barriers between team members create barriers between ideas. Employees are simply less likely to communicate if it requires extra effort and inconvenience.


Working in a shared space, advocates argue, gives employees the feeling that they are in it together, rather than independently performing their given tasks. Furthermore, private offices can often confer a certain prestige or status. Employees should feel like they are working as a team and not competing with each other for the better workplace.

Cost efficiency

Setting up an open workspace costs less per person and square meter than setting up private workspaces. It also makes it easier to streamline IT infrastructure.

Managers more accessible

Eliminating private offices eliminates the intimidating feeling of walking into the boss’s office. If supervisors are not separated by closed doors, they become more approachable.

Easier team supervision

Just as open office designs make managers more accessible to their team, it also makes their team more accessible, allowing for more efficient supervision.

More flexible to change

As companies expand or diversify, having an open floor plan allows for easier adjustments to accommodate new talent or more workspaces.

Aesthetically more appealing

Open offices look more ‘modern’ than their robust predecessors, and give a future-oriented feeling the space.

More comfortable

Open spaces allow air and light into the environment, making people feel comfortable.

It’s trendy

Who wouldn’t want to follow the example of that hip startup from Brooklyn or that juggernaut from Silicon Valley?

The disadvantages of an open office design

Open office plans have become widely accepted and many employees have expressed certain grievances about the concept. Some features have had an immediate counterproductive effect and produced the opposite of the intended benefits, while in other cases completely unforeseen disadvantages have arisen. Here are some common complaints.

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Collaboration versus distraction

While making employees more accessible to everyone can facilitate collaboration and communication, it can also be a frustrating distraction for talent trying to focus on a task. In some offices this has become such a problem that certain recognized ‘do not disturb’ rules are justified, i.e. if a team member is wearing headphones, leave them alone.

Less privacy

Employees in open offices often feel exposed to their colleagues throughout the workday. Many people need at least a few moments of privacy during the day.

Feelings of micromanagement and oversupervision

While many managers feel that open offices are a great way to make them more accessible to their teams, employees often complain that they feel constantly monitored by management. This can lead to a stressful environment that ultimately puts pressure on an employee and stifles his or her productivity.

Increased conflicts

Anyone who has ever had to spend too much time with siblings on a children’s vacation knows that overexposure to each other leads to conflict. This also applies in the workplace. The stress of constant exposure can cause irritability and lead to more heated disagreements between coworkers.

Spread of germs

More contact means increased exposure to germs. This means more sick employees, which translates into lost productivity.

Job dissatisfaction

All of these small stressors can lead to an overall feeling of unhappiness on the job, making it difficult for employers to retain their best talent.

The Harvard Study on Open Workplaces

In a recent study, researchers from Harvard University attempted to empirically measure the effects of open offices on employee behavior. Do they really facilitate collaboration? Do they increase productivity? Do they boost morale?

Rather, what they found was that “rather than encouraging increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture seemed to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and instead communicate via email.” -email and IM.” In short, the claims about greater cooperation, communication and camaraderie were all completely wrong. Collaboration and morale, actually decreases in an open workplace.

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With this evidence, employers have begun to weigh their employees’ complaints more heavily against the accepted wisdom of open workplaces.

Impact of open offices on women

A final – and crucial – consideration in the open office debate concerns the disproportionate impact on women. As we’ve noted, many employees complain of a feeling of exposure and a lack of privacy with open floor plans. For men in the workplace, that feeling can be irritating and demoralizing. However, for many women it can be downright threatening.

The rise of the #metoo movement has made it clear that employers can no longer be complacent when it comes to perpetuating a hostile environment for women. If American companies do not take the demands of their female employees seriously, they will drive away a significant portion of their talent and face scrutiny for their participation in a culture that makes women feel unwelcome and unsafe.

Talent Retention and the Way Forward from Open Office Designs

What the open office concept got right, at least in spirit, was the central importance of talent in the workplace. A company’s people are its most crucial resource, and if its people are dissatisfied, they will leave for better opportunities. In many cases that means better workplaces.

Despite conventional wisdom, evidence is mounting that employees are unhappy in open-plan offices. If employers want to remain competitive, they must find solutions. Fortunately, there has been a great deal of innovation in workplace design in recent years, and new philosophies are emerging that are beginning to address the drawbacks of the open office, while reinforcing the spirit of collaboration, flexibility and employee morale. employees are retained.

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