Open plan office layout – yay or nay?

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Open office layout Cape Town

Is an open office layout the answer for your business? Image Credit – Peg Design


First pioneered by companies in the late 1990’s, open plan office design has now become the norm at most companies in the world having fostered a more collaborative and innovative work environment. However, the popular open office layout trend is now experiencing somewhat of a backlash – especially from young millennials who are now entering the work place for the first time. Depending on the nature of business, an employer needs to carefully assess the following drawbacks and benefits with their space planner:

The benefits:

  • Cost efficiency is one of the most significant factors motivating an open plan office design, with South African employers typically able to save up to 56% compared to enclosed offices.
  • In particular, both employers and employees noted that a more collaborative work environment results in opinions and contributions from colleagues being shared more easily and openly in real time as input is required.
  • Many employers highlight the success of an open office layout in encouraging team work, good communication and a culture of transparency. This is particularly evident in open plan layouts where managers or executives share the open office with their team, allowing for a more “hands-on” approach to management and pro-active involvement in team work.
Open office layout privacy

Open office layouts encourage collaboration. However, a lack of privacy also influences work productivity. Image Credit – Peg Design

The drawbacks:

  • The most obvious drawback is increased ambient noise and acoustics, which can result in multiple distractions leading to decreased productivity. Research from the University of Sydney suggests that “the loss of productivity due to noise distraction was nearly doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.”
  • This is compounded by the false perception of “availability” in an open office layout, with staff more likely to interrupt one another. If noise levels and distractions become too much, it can potentially result in emotional fatigue and absenteeism in the form of frequent or longer breaks.
  • A lack of privacy can become frustrating for both manager and employee. For example, creative and technology companies often prefer a flat corporate structure or hierarchy, as reflected in an open plan office layout where enclosed offices are typically reserved for C-level executives. However, removing boundaries may see managers constantly seeking refuge in meeting rooms to discuss or handle managerial/staff related enquiries. Staff on the other hand have to vacate their desks to handle private matters, or just to be outside of the continuous presence of their manager.

The solution – create multiple work environments    

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Creating multiple work environments allows employees to adjust their context to their work requirements. Image Credit – Peg Design

  • Instead of an holistic open plan environment, employers can consider an office space plan built around various work conditions being popularized by the work preferences of millennials. In other words, by creating a space plan around pocket areas of activity or concentration, employees move around the office and into various work environments to best suit their daily work process.
  • Generally speaking, the following areas can be considered:
    • Socializing – A lounge space or cafe styled area intended for breaks and to recharge.
    • Open desks – These spaces resemble the open office layout, but with less “cubicle-like” features. Having central charge points and equipment at each table accommodates employees to work together with all the benefits of open office collaboration without disturbing those who need to focus.
    • Refuge – Managers who require time to focus are accommodated in a secluded and enclosed space free from distractions. This move also acts as an automatic signal to colleagues not to disturb, or to administrative staff to hold incoming calls or requests.
    • Team-meeting spaces – Depending on company needs, these smaller meeting spaces are intended to accommodate informal/internal meetings on the fly that can either be semi-enclosed or completely enclosed. Don’t label this as just a “meeting room” and add lounge furniture or creative materials to make the space inviting and enjoyable.
    • Conference space – This space resembles a typical formal boardroom or conferencing space, intended for accommodating guests or large gatherings.

Want to rethink your current space plan? Enquire before 29 February 2016 and get free space planning services in Cape Town from Baker Street Properties. Complete the form below

This article has been written in conjunction with Peg Design, a leading corporate design and space planning firm in Cape Town.



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