Open vs. Closed Space Work Environments

By Talia Klein Perez
 Getty Images: Oli Scarff
*Updated 2018
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 and social culture. These days, over 70% of U.S. office spaces are 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 spaces?
Here are three arguments in favor of closed spaces 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, 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.


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. Studies have found that open work environments, with few screens 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, in order to boost 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. 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, research has shown 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


Open spaces promote better collaboration and happiness

A 2013 study found that employees working out of 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 success of WeWork, the flourishing global chain of shared office spaces that has begun to transform the way startups interact with one another. In spaces like WeWork offices, the improved communication that results from a lack of physical barriers enables employees to collaborate freely – bounce ideas off of each other and ask for assistance, as needs arise. The fluid communication enables them to establish relationships with their colleagues and create an atmosphere of greater teamwork, fulfillment and happiness.


They are more cost-effective

Open office floor plans are significantly more 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. An open floor plan can also enable more employees to work in a single space, enabling a better value for the cost of the company’s office rental. This way, companies can 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 can be used to fund company fun days or other morale-boosting events!


They prevent or alleviate 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.


Bottom line: Completely open workspace environments can be noisy, yet foster collaboration. Closed-off workspaces fall short on cost-effectiveness but encourage performance. In our new work economy, how should businesses structure their office spaces to balance company and employee desires, while also taking into account unique industry and business needs? Where would you like to work?

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