The revelation of the open-plan office destroyed the isolating, ugly cubicle-farm layout. It introduced a collaborative atmosphere, allowing socialisation, co-operation, better lighting and breathing space for employees.

As mentioned in our Evolution of Office Design post, the open-plan office design approach was first introduced in the 1950s. The Schnelle brothers from Germany came up with the B├╝rolandschaft model, translating to ‘office landscape’. This new exciting office design trend promoted a sense of community in the office, privacy added by plants or partitions for privacy.

However, the problems of open-plan working have become more and more recognised as office design evolves further.

First comes the problem with noise from co-workers working close-by, potentially discussing their weekend enthusiastically rather than working. Some employees may find this extremely distracting, while others work fine with background noise.  The occasional bit of socialising can be healthy between employees, building relationships, friendships and a friendly working atmosphere – and happier employees who enjoy their job are potentially harder-working ones too.

Ways to combat the distraction from noise in open-plan offices can only go so far without the addition of walls, which would defeat the point of open-plan in the first place. Noise-cancelling headphones are one, but with those come the perception that the wearer is an unsociable grump – it’s often tricky to find a balance. If an employee really struggles to be productive working in a room with lots of others, then requesting a separate office, or to even work from home may happen, in which case, it’s up to employers to make a decision.

Another argument many bring to the table when opposing open-plan layouts is temperature control. As we all know, it’s difficult to control the temperature of a large space to suit everyone in it; some may be sat near a window and overheating from the suns glare, while others may be shivering and covered in goose-bumps sat close to the air-con unit. It’s rare that everyone’s at a comfortable temperature all at the same time – some may like a warm working environment while others only work well with open windows are fresh air flowing.

Providing personal fans to desks is one way to help, and listening to employees requests about their office location is another, however the debate of open-plan offices in terms of temperature control is on-going, with no definite solution easily accessible for companies. Having communal desks near ventilation available for anyone who finds a warm space uncomfortable or vice versa is an option, providing choice.

Privacy is another problem thrown into the mix when assessing open-plan offices. Although the cubicle-farm office layout is dated and seems claustrophobic, it did provide optimum privacy for individual work or conversations which need a confidential environment.

Of course, separate meeting rooms may be available, but one of the main purposes of an open-plan office space is that everyone’s close together for ease of conversation and collaboration, so going somewhere separate to discuss matters with someone kind of defeats the point.

Privacy in an open-plan office can be achieved with clever design however. Plants, partitioning boards, book cases etc. can be a creative way to provide privacy visually, but the sound-proofing issue still remains.

Finally, being all in a large room can be dangerous for illnesses. If you’re sat opposite or even a few desk-rows down from someone who can’t stop sniffling and sneezing, it’s not going to do you or your employees many favours. The spread of disease is more likely in a large open space, and with the mix of temperature control facilities and air-flow interruptions, its bad news.  And the likelihood of illness being increased won’t be great for the workforce, and the absences may increase, meaning less work will get done.

So while the initial ideas of collaboration being easier, which still stands valid, the problems and complications with open-plan have risen over the years. A way designers have combatted these problems is by providing extra spaces away from the open-plan area available for anyone to use, or simply scrapping the open-plan approach by creating separated rooms, but using materials like glass to still be visually-pleasing and give the appearance of a large space. Separated areas or rooms are able to control temperature easier, and give privacy and sound-proofing easily.

Despite open-plan still being used by many, every office needs private space, and as office design and layout and technology evolves continuously, the problems surrounding open-plan should be solved.

Laura Sewell

An aspiring journalist, Laura is our content writer intern.  Pop-punk gig-goer and drag queen enthusiast, Laura is working her way into the industry with an English A -Level and love of writing about anything and everything in tow.
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