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Open vs. Closed Space Work Environments

By Talia Klein Perez
 Getty Images: Oli Scarff
*Updated 2022
There is no doubt that office design plays an important role in how a company operates daily. The layout of an office space holds several vital implications for any business, including cost, communication, privacy, social culture and employees’ health. The latter is especially important today given the restrictions and consequences we experienced during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In recent years, before the coronavirus hit, over 70% of U.S. office spaces were open-concept, which was devised in Germany in the 1950s. But which layout is more conducive to corporate and employee success – open office plans or closed office space?
Before the current health crisis hit, this debate was on everyone’s mind after reading about the meteoric rise – and epic downfall – of shared workspace company WeWork. However, now, as employees worldwide debate the health risks involved in returning to their daily routines, including going back to their offices, will the open workspace concept take a hit or keep growing?
Here are three arguments in favor of closed spaces (that don’t only focus on the coronavirus) and three more for open spaces:


Three reasons closed office spaces are better


They outline a clear hierarchical order


Hierarchical order is necessary for a company’s chain of command to be effective. This was evidenced by the 30% turnover rate experienced by Zappos, in 2015 after it implemented a new, anti-hierarchy management style, called holacracy. Closed office spaces reinforce hierarchical order and make it clear. The idea is as such: The better the office, the more senior the employee, with only the top employees receiving corner offices. As an added bonus, workers are motivated by the promise of better office space, working harder to achieve company goals and make their way up the corporate ladder. And when employees are happy, corporate is satisfied and motivated to drive further success – and vice versa.


There are fewer distractions

Having walls surrounding employees while they work prevents distractions and provides an increased sense of security; the fear of being watched while you work is no longer relevant. In contrast, a completely open office space without any barriers can inhibit productivity. Researchers at Harvard have found that open work environments negatively affect collaboration, actually reducing face-to-face interactions by 70%. Plus, fewer screens or walls between employees, can lead to increased employee interruption, reduced levels of concentration and lower levels of motivation.  Since it can take as long as 23 minutes for employees to get back on task and return to a fully engaged state, closed office layouts seem like a smart option to boost (and maintain) levels of concentration.


Healthier for employees

The closed office space helps keep germs from spreading between employees and therefore provides workers with increased physical health safety. Having smaller, closed offices with fewer people may be particularly relevant and beneficial to offices that have been enforcing social distancing rules. Not to mention, with less shared office space also means fewer shared office supplies and physical interactions, an obvious plus when it comes to social distancing and lowering the risk of exposure to germs.

Physical health aside, closed office space also improves employees’ emotional wellbeing, as they are less exposed to work-related stressors, including the need to appear in constant productivity. Indeed, it’s been suggested that employees working in closed offices tend to experience less age discrimination due to the exhibition of anxiety, cardiac issues and digestive problems caused by the stressful environment they are working in. These employees also experience less neurological problems, like vertigo, brought on by the busy open-space environment.

Three reasons open spaces are better


They promote collaboration and happiness

2013 study found that employees working in cubicles had “the highest rates of unhappiness with their work set-up.”  Open office spaces, on the other hand, tend to be more disposed to spontaneous brainstorming sessions and informal group conversation. This is, in part, what contributed to the rise of WeWork, the global chain of shared office spaces that transformed the way startups interacted with one another before its sudden decline in 2019. In spaces like WeWork offices, the improved communication that resulted from a lack of physical barriers enabled employees to collaborate freely – bounce ideas off of each other and ask for assistance, as needs arose. Such fluid communication enabled workers to establish relationships with their colleagues and create an atmosphere of greater teamwork and fulfillment. Ditching the concept of corner offices can also help those in management positions stay more connected to company culture and employees’ mindset.


They are cost-effective

Not taking into account preventative coronavirus-related office restructuring, open office floor plans are significantly cost-effective in terms of initial set-up, as well as with respect to heating, air conditioning and cleaning the space. No materials are needed to build walls or separate areas into cubicles. No individual desks need to be purchased, and the space can easily be reconfigured as required. Again, before the current health pandemic changed how we think about working alongside others, an open floor plan often enabled more employees to work in a single space, enabling a better value for the cost of the company’s office rental. This way, companies could invest more money into business operations and rewarding employee achievements instead of into office construction and maintenance. Who knows, maybe the money saved on office planning could have been used to fund company fun days or other morale-boosting events.


They prevent or alleviate physical pain

People who sit for more than eight or nine hours a day – a typical workday – are at heightened risk for diabetes, depression and, especially, back pain. Luckily, open floor plans tend to encourage employees to spend more time standing up and moving around. Employees can stretch their bodies and their minds, removing much physical and cognitive tension from the workday. Five minutes of motion every hour during the workday can lift employees’ moods, fight exhaustion without reducing attention, and even mitigate the effects of hunger pangs, a study reveals. Employees working out of open spaces are therefore likely to form more positive work associations, and experience less real and perceived pain as a result of the workday.


The Bottom Line: Completely open workspace environments can be noisy, yet foster collaboration. Closed workspaces fall short on cost-effectiveness but encourage performance. As the pandemic continues to wane and the world adjusts to a new normal, it begs the question: How would you suggest that businesses structure their office spaces to balance company and employee desires while also taking into account unique industry and business needs? In which type of office environment would you like to work in a post-Covid-19 business world?

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