Why Your Open Concept Office Creates More Problems Than It Solves

by Glenn Hicks on January 22, 2019

The open concept office design was originally touted as a great way to encourage collaboration and make employees feel less restricted, inspiring more creativity.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to remove barriers to communication and innovation, many well-meaning employers who implemented this layout created an environment that actually reduces productivity. Here’s why many organizations are phasing out the open office—and why you may need to reconsider yours.

The Problems with Open Office Floor Plans

In an office without any barriers between desks, employees don’t have to stand up to talk to one another. In theory, this should spark more spontaneous interactions and make employees feel more connected.

However, without barriers, employees have zero privacy.

It’s difficult for them to achieve a flow state if anyone can enter their space unannounced at any time.

Getting rid of physical barriers also means there is nothing to absorb sound in the office.

And since most modern offices have high ceilings and no carpet, the office can get loud and distracting very quickly. Janet Pogue McLaurin, an architect and principal at Texas-based design firm Gensler, says employers must consider accessibility and how noise moves through an office.

“You want enough access that people can see others and feel connected,” Pogue McLaurin explains, “but you don’t want people to be constantly interrupted.”

These are just a few of the reasons why many workplaces are rethinking their open office floor plans. However, this isn’t to say you should abandon modern office design altogether and revert to cubicles.

Instead, implement an office layout that is flexible, but not totally unstructured. In other words, it’s time to adopt activity-based working (ABW).

The Future is ABW

ABW is like the open office concept version 2.0.

Like an open office floor plan, there are no cubicles to isolate employees from one another. But unlike an open office where all employees work at the same desks in one large shared space, in an ABW environment, the workplace is divided into multiple areas, each designated for a specific task.

If an employee needs to make a personal phone call, they don’t have to whisper at their desk or head outside the office. Instead, they can use a private “phone booth” where they can take the call without distracting anyone or worrying about colleagues overhearing personal information.

ABW also makes it easier for employees to have impromptu meetings, which increases collaboration.

Related: Does Activity-Based Working Actually Work? The Surprising Data

Transitioning From An Open Concept Office to ABW: Start Small

It’s okay if your open concept office hasn’t been as successful as you’d hoped. Don’t give up on the idea that a better workplace design can cultivate greater collaboration and productivity. The good news is, you’re already halfway there!

You can start the transition from an open office concept to ABW in the new year with just a few updates:

  1. Identify smaller rooms or spaces that can be repurposed as quiet areas. (Add partitions if needed.)
  2. Add comfortable chairs to a section of the office where people frequently pass through but rarely stay. This can become a space for informal meetings or for employees to take a short break.
  3. Add a few standing desks to encourage employees to get up and move around more.
  4. Encourage employees not to get too attached to their desks. Add closet space or cubbies where they can keep personal belongings so they can move around freely without having to tote everything with them.

Implementing ABW: Next Steps

Making the shift from an open office to one that favors activity-based working won’t happen overnight—or even in a few weeks.

Depending on the size of your company, it could take a year or more to fully adopt an activity-based working environment. It’s not as simple as just putting up walls.

First, you’ll need to make sure your workstations are uniform and interchangeable with the assets the majority of your workforce uses. If all employees get a standard-issued laptop, make sure they also have access to an outlet, monitor and a reliable internet connection. If you have a bring your own device (BYOD) policy, you might have to consider additional data security measures.

Next, you’ll need to make sure employees have a way to find and reserve spaces throughout the day. They need an easy way to stay connected to their colleagues, find the right equipment and request service without disrupting their day. Whatever technology you use, it has to be mobile or it defeats the purpose of your new work environment.

For this reason, 59 percent of corporate executives say they plan to add an employee experience app to their workplace in the next few years.

Moving to a new workplace design involves much more than furniture upgrades—it’s an exercise in managing change. And like any change management initiative, it will be most successful if you take it one step at a time and keep the lines of communication open throughout the process.


Glenn Hicks

A member of the Business Development team, Glenn has years of experience with business process improvement on the Commercial Real Estate and Facilities Management sides.

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