3 Reasons Open Offices Don't Work

04/14/2015 02:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

Is the door finally closing on open offices?

That's the question on the minds of employers across the country as many weigh whether to adopt - or abandon - open floor plans whose perceived social and professional benefits are often overshadowed by the reality of having little, if any, personal privacy.

While individuals like Howard Tullman, CEO of Chicago-based startup incubator 1871, say "open is over," others call complaints about noise and lower productivity a "first-generation problem that can and should be overcome," whether it be through thoughtful acoustic design, a mix of solo and social spaces, or both.

Ultimately, the success of an office design comes down to careful planning and execution, and as the backlash against open offices indicates, a number of businesses have fallen short in these areas by blindly adopting floor plans that aren't conducive to their day-to-day operations. Here are the three primary reasons open-plan offices don't live up to employers' expectations:

  1. They don't reflect the corporate culture: Arguably the biggest problem with open offices - now in 70 percent of workplaces, according to the International Management Facility Association (IMFA) - is that they've been adopted hastily as a one-size-fits-all solution, as the IMFA figure indicates. Despite their flaws, open offices sometimes make sense for creative businesses where conversation and collaboration are not only beneficial, but often essential. Yet that doesn't mean more traditional businesses, including those that require privacy for meetings or one-on-one conversations with clients, should take the same approach. If a floor plan isn't helping employees do their jobs more efficiently, it's probably time for a redesign.
  2. They take the concept too far: Even if an open-plan office makes sense for a particular business, employers should think twice before picking up the sledgehammer and demolishing every wall in sight. While open offices drastically reduce the number of small, enclosed rooms, effective floor plans don't eliminate them entirely. Instead, they embrace these spaces by strategically creating phone booths, team rooms and other casual meeting areas that employees can step into if they need to make a call or simply want a change of scene. A survey of 2,035 U.S. "knowledge workers" by global architecture firm Gensler found that employees who have a choice over when and where they work - for example, spending an afternoon in a lounge rather than the same workstation from 9 to 5 - are more likely to view their companies as innovative, more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and more likely to be higher performing.
  3. They fail to evolve: As new technologies are developed and design trends come and go, employee preferences change, and their workspaces should evolve to meet their needs. Some of the most vocal opponents of open offices are the people who have worked in them and, in some cases, were once supporters of the open office movement. Soliciting feedback from employees on a regular basis helps ensure they are working as efficiently and comfortably as possible, which boosts morale - and a company's bottom line. If employees are unsatisfied with their work environment, it's usually because their employer failed to ask what their team needs to succeed.

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Frank Chalupa is president and co-founder of Amata Office Solutions, a Chicago-based real estate provider specializing in office solutions for companies requiring up to 10,000 square feet of office space.