A few years ago, organizations of all sizes — including big names like Google — were championing what has now become known as the “open office.” This is an office design and layout concept that minimizes or eliminates barriers such as cubicle partitions and walls, in order to create a common space within which cross-functional teams work, interact, collaborate, and share knowledge capital. At least, that was the lofty goal.

Unfortunately, something bad happened on the way to open office bliss: some of the organizations that dumped their cubicles (to much fanfare from their employees) discovered that their workplace actually become unproductive, nosier, less secure and private, and that instead of promoting spontaneous collaboration, employees were wasting time with endless conversations about non-work issues — or in some cases, were going to battle. Indeed, hell hath no fury like a worker struggling to concentrate on a critical task when they are within earshot of a chronic “pen clicker”, or gum-chewer who really, really likes blowing (and popping) bubbles. And we will not even discuss what happens when employees with a love of garlic bread decide to eat lunch at their desk.

As expected, many organizations encountering these problems have either scaled down their open office (it is more of a limited breakout space now), or have shuttered the idea altogether and have reverted back to dreaded cubicles. However, according to leading nationwide interior solutions firm Key Interiors, the problem isn’t and has never been with the open office concept, which can and does indeed work — as evidenced by the organizations that continue to use this approach.

Rather, the problem is that most organizations embraced an open design without updating their workplace policies, or making critical adjustments and upgrades to other parts of their environment. These include:

  • Establishing private workspaces for confidential meetings and other work.
  • Enforcing standard and fair policies that govern how employees should — and shouldn’t — behave in an open office environment (e.g. noise levels, eating, chatting, etc.).
  • Creating “heads down” times and/or zones where employees can focus and concentrate on tasks without being interrupted by colleagues.
  • Providing staff with sufficient meeting areas, so they can collaborate, brainstorm, present, train and so on — without commandeering the entire work area for any of these purposes.
  • Ensuring that the environment has optimal lighting — one of the biggest problems with many open office environments is a lack of light, or excessive light and glare.

The Bottom Line

While an open office environment is not for every organization (simply because there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all layout), much of the criticism that it is receiving these days is simply unwarranted: because the problem is not rooted in the design, approach or layout, but in how it has been implemented, managed and governed.

When these factors are corrected, then the benefits of an open office typically become apparent very quickly. These include better collaboration, more knowledge sharing, faster decision making, and a more engaged workforce that is characterized by inclusivity and teamwork vs. politics and cliques. In short, everyone wins (and garlic bread, while delicious, is enjoyed in the lunchroom!).