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The Open Office: Making the Concept Work


According to the International Facility Management Association, more than 70 percent of employees work in an open office environment, yet many are dissatisfied due to a number of challenges this concept creates. From distractions and lack of privacy to the one-size-fits-all cubicle approach, there is a lot to consider when ripping out the walls in favor of sharing one space. Whether or not you have already gone this route, here are some powerful considerations for ensuring your open plan workplace is, indeed, a place that supports getting work done, not just one that looks cool.

1)     Cut the cord and go untethered. One of the largest benefits of an open office is the ability to maximize space. Given the wide popularity of telecommuting, flex-hours, and more generous PTO policies, it is extremely rare that all employees are in the office, occupying the same space on a daily basis. In fact, companies with fixed desks – where an employee is permanently assigned to a particular desk – average 25 to 50 percent of unused workspace on any given day. That’s a lot of wasted space!

Due to the ever-increasing cost of real estate, it makes sense to create an untethered environment where employers can host a higher headcount in less physical space. The benefit for employees is they are then able to plug into a workstation best suited for their needs on that particular day. Which brings me to…

2)     Create task-based zones. Now that you’re dealing with a wide-open space in which you are not required to plop down one workstation for each employee, you are free to create work “zones” or environments that are conducive to common tasks within your organization. Is there a need for a quiet, focused work area where folks can process information and respond? What about opportunities to collide and collaborate with other employees to generate new ideas or problem solve? How about a casual space to come together before and after meetings to ensure everyone is on the same page before running off to take action?

Herman Miller, a well-known and innovative office design organization, provides a helpful guide, “The Living Office”, that illustrates common needs so you can consider and address those that pertain to your business. Be sure to include codes of conduct for the different zones, as some may need quiet whereas others are expected to be highly collaborative and loud.

3)     Maintain space for privacy. One of the biggest gripes of the open office is complete lack of privacy. So before you knock down every single wall, seriously consider leaving some up. Creating small “phone booths” that offer privacy when individuals need to make personal calls or focus on a client. It doesn’t take up much space, but covers a lot of ground in addressing employee needs.

And if you are an executive and have an assigned office with walls, consider offering it as communal workspace when you aren’t in. Invest in locking file cabinets to keep confidential material safe and open the door to guests.

The open office offers a lot of advantages for employers. It’s cost efficient, promotes collaboration and teamwork. It has the potential to afford employees a work environment that’s “just right” at the right time through hot-desking and zones. As with anything, it requires thoughtful planning. Your workplace is a delicate ecosystem that can thrive given the right conditions. So before you send in the construction crew, get with your employees and a planner to design an intentional space – one that’s open and conducive to the real needs of employees.

This blog was originally published on and was written by contributing author, Halley Bock, President & CEO, Fierce, Inc.


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