Open space in the office: pros and cons

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

How does the office of the future look like?

Until a few years ago, no one would have been surprised if, when asked “how do you envision the office of the future?”, the majority of people had answered “open space”. The situation, however, began to change a few years ago, even before the wave of redefining workspaces implemented during and especially after the pandemic. The offices commonly referred to as open spaces are typically structured with a large open area, indeed, intended for the majority of a company’s workforce and typically surrounded by spaces designated as meeting rooms and breakrooms; furthermore, while in some cases managers and CEOs have private offices near the open-plan area, in other cases, private offices are not provided, and everyone works in the open-plan area.. This office model was originally designed to increase collaboration levels and improve communication quality in the workplace among members of the same department or team, or more broadly, to break down physical and communicative barriers between different departments and levels within some companies. This trend, dating back to the 1960s, demonstrated the benefits of closer working relationships among employees.

Indeed, in the Sixties, the open space office has experienced a real surge in popularity: the so-called bürolandschaft is based on a concept of German origin that refers to the “landscape” of the office created through design, with the primary goal of “making the workplace more democratic and fostering more interactions among colleagues”; altough, it is worth noting that, in fact, already in the early twentieth century, there were architects who had recognized the potential of an “open” design for the office: a well-known example is Frank Lloyd Wright, who in 1936, designed the first office building entirely conceived according to an open space architectural plan for the SC Johnson Wax company. The objective behind the modernization of office design and the shift towards openness was certainly to maximize productivity, also under the conceptual drive of business consultants — such as Frederick Taylor — who adopted it as a fundamental advice for companies seeking ways to improve their employees’ performance.

If we move from the 1960s to the present day, the numbers speak for themselves: in 2017, the BBC reported that open space offices had been chosen by approximately 70% of companies in the United States, for example. However, research into the functionality and effectiveness of the choice of an open space office: according to some of these, the data would show that those who work in an open space office are 15% less productive mainly (but not only) due to concentration issues and distractions, which are more frequent in this type of space (the research shows that even minor distractions can lead to a loss of concentration of more than twenty minutes). Per questi motivi, soprattutto oggi che è in atto un processo di ridefinizione e riconcettualizzazione dello spazio dell’ufficio, il ragionamento sugli uffici open continua a innescare dibattiti che prendono in considerazione vantaggi e svantaggi di un modello che ha goduto per decenni di una vasta popolarità. Our choice is to examine these advantages and disadvantages, referring to the research that over the years has defended or criticized theopen space area in the office, but also to clarify which compromises or solutions can be adopted to overcome the drawbacks of the model without losing its advantages, and to definitively move towards the office of the future.

Advantages of open space

1. Communication is key
This was advocated as far back as the Sixties, when there was the real launch of theopen space office.. It’s a matter of accessibility: physically positioning employees in the same space, at relatively close distances, puts them in rapid and immediate contact with each other, encouraging exchanges of opinions and idea and “cultural collisions”, thus improving teamwork and consequently productivity.

2. Thinking about saving
Whether considering the costs of furnishing— with typically interchangeable and customizable furniture— a single, albeit large area, rather than many “cubicle” offices, or calculating the savings in the purchase of technical equipment (such as printers, projectors, and photocopiers), the end result is the same: the office’s open space area has competitive costs compared to the so-called “standard” office. It’s not surprising that the open space model is still extremely popular among startups and small companies taking their first steps in the business world.

3. Seeking flexibility and transparency
As far as flexibility in the office goes for open space areas, in this context, the emphasis is mainly on the observation that, in most workplaces of this type, the basic concept is that no worker is assigned to a specific desk or area of theopen space .; this characteristic is also facilitated by the furnishings, which, as mentioned earlier, tend to be modular and as adaptable as possible to different needs. Moving on to transparency, the explanation becomes even more immediate: if all employees, from all teams and levels of a company, are located and work in the same place, work is visible to everyone, in a very literal sense. Therefore, it is believed that this sharing of spaces pushes members of each team to perform their role appropriately and in accordance with the company’s requirements.

4. The manager’s office
In the cases already mentioned where managers and leaders of a company choose the same workspace as their employees, open space , in these cases, the message to the employees is clear: in this company, we opt for democratizing the workplace, thus putting all staff on the same level.

Disadvantages of the open space

1. Communication, yes, but what kind?
We have already discussed what kind of communication is seen as best in the open space, , also because it has always been the primary and strongest argument in favor of adopting this office model; but, apparently, it is not always true and it cannot be taken for granted that choosing theopen space, makes communication levels (and quality) skyrocket: a review on open spaceand communication in the company has found that in some cases face-to-face interactions drop by 70% when a company switches from a traditional office to an open space office.. The main theory behind these data is that employees placed in close proximity to each other in the same environment tend to create a sort of fourth wall around their personal space, and everyone is instinctively inclined to respect it.

2. Amongst noises and distractions
Two of the most evident cons ofopen space office,, and, anyways, those that are immediately noticeable are not the only ones; it is not surprising, therefore, that in a survey from 2019 , 99% of the interviewees stated that they easily get distracted due to the shared environment or that in a 2018 report regarding distractions in the workplace, 80% of the participants mentioned “chatter” among colleagues and surrounding noises as the major distractions in the context of open space office..

3. The truth about productivity
This point directly relates to the first two and dismantles the beliefs that have long presented theof open space office. as the ideal choice to give a significant boost to employees’ productivity; the effect of noise, distractions, and a type of communication directly influenced by the context of open space office can lead employees to be overall less satisfied with their work and their company’s culture. Indeed reports that many people encounter difficulty working and being productive in a noisy and distracting environment, even if everyone around them is there to work.

4. What about privacy?
Let’s suppose we have created an environment of open space office , where distractions and noises are minimized, we would find ourselves in an environment where working side by side with colleagues—and in some cases even with one’s boss—could encourage everyone to give their best and to focus entirely. However, this place would still present a significant lack of privacy. This can create serious psychological issues, for example, for introverted employees—who find open spaces intimidating and oppressive—but it can’t be said that extroverts thrive in an environment where they are under constant observation. Indeed, a Chinese study from 2018 confirmed that being constantly under someone’s observation, especially from one’s boss, slowed down productivity.

5. Weelbeing, stress and anxiety
Indeed, the previous point already introduced the important discussion about the well-being, both in terms of work and psychology, of a company’s employees, a factor that is becoming increasingly crucial in the pursuit of a balance that not only enhances corporate culture but also aims to improve the perception that current and potential employees have of the company itself. Distractions, lack of privacy, and the pressure of constantly being watched by everyone, indeed, combine to create a space that can trigger a certain level of anxiety. In addition, some research has shown that open-plan offices can also lead to the generation of generational and age-related barriers and gaps, which more senior workers may respond to by changing jobs or resigning.

6. Health comes first
The Covid-19 pandemic has made this even clearer: in an environment where everyone is in contact with everyone else, the ease with which germs can spread and proliferate is significant. Even before the pandemic, in fact, some studies had suggested that there was a very clear link between open-plan offices and a higher number of sick days taken, compared to traditional offices.

7. The floor is given to the workers
Do workers like open space offices? A 2019 research by Gensler answered with a fairly clear “no,” reporting that only about 7% of respondents identified theopen space as the ideal office model, while 28% said they preferred open space equipped with private spaces for privacy or specific roles. The majority —around 40%— preferred private or semi-private offices, with 25% opting for spaces suitable for teams of up to six people.

Suggestions, compromises, solutions

Indeed, the costs of open office spaces are very competitive and represent an important attraction when choosing which office model suits one’s needs. But the disadvantages listed show that the portfolio must also deal with issues of workers’ well-being, concentration, and health, which are difficult to put a price on. However, there are measures and compromises that can be implemented to find the best solution for each office.

First and foremost, it’s important to understand whether the concept of open space is suitable for the type of work and industry involved. For example, sectors such as banking, healthcare, and finance are less conducive to open space due to various confidentiality and privacy concerns. Other aspects need considering: the number of employees, as well as the potential presence of remote workers or alternating in-office and remote work arrangements with smart working, as smaller teams or larger teams with a fixed and regulated alternation between hybrid and in-person work, may adapt betterto the open space scenario.. An effective strategy can certainly be to survey our employees about their needs, in order to identify the best solutions to shared problems that may concern the open space but also, more broadly, the company culture.

From a perspective of balancing the advantages and disadvantages of open space, a functional choice is to also include various private spaces, perhaps on request or by reservation, so as to always offer an alternative for roles and needs that may require it. Furthermore, it can be forward-thinking to install services aimed at optimizing work, valuing the fact that those who perform at high levels tend to prefer a certain degree of freedom on the workplace and demonstrates working well both in the workplace and outside it: in this regard, co-working areas are a powerful tool that should be used as part — and not as a substitute — of the traditional office experience. The data shows that the opportunity to work in a co-working space is directly associated with an improvement in work experience and performance.

Stella rethinks the office in terms of corporate and individual well-being.

Having considered the advantages and disadvantages of the open space model, at Stella, we want to go further and advocate for a cultural revolution in the office and more generally in the dynamics concerning the workspace. Our idea is to create spaces and services that can offer the variety of spaces and amenities necessary to provide the best possible working experience for employees. For instance, Palazzo Isola Nova, our Venetian location, fully embodies this ideal by offering a wide range of services that range from aclubhouse to serviced offices, of various sizes and highly customizable, to dedicated spaces for co-working, meeting rooms e event spaces; all complemented by essential ancillary services to complete the working experience, such as parking, food delivery, and event management services.

An organization can find every service in the same place, dealing with a single point of contact, and, above all, benefiting from a high level of customization based on their needs and a community context. Indeed, our “ecosystemic” culture pursues a model where there is space for every need: teamwork, individual productivity, long-term savings, and precise consideration of the well-being of those who work.

The office of the future is neither open space nor private, we would say; rather, it is a blend of models, obtained by taking from each what proves functional to the work and the people who perform it every day. The office of the future is many offices, each tailored to the companies and individuals who use it.

Welcome to the Office of the Future