Far too many employees spend their working day as a premature baby might in a specialist care unit in a tiny, overheated, light-polluted incubator. Little wonder then that so many businesses spend an inordinate amount of time in determining whether an open or closed office layout is the better option.
An office design is vitally important as it can convey who you are and what you stand for. It can boost employee recruitment and talent retention and can lift staff morale, satisfaction level and productivity. It can clearly demonstrate your bold vision, your unique culture and your creativity. Or, conversely, your love of tradition, your aversion to change and your conformity.
What is confusing is why some firms use their office space to reinforce hierarchy and an individual's level of supposed ‘importance’. Why is it that partners are often the only people allowed to have offices? Do partners really need more peace and quiet and more privacy than the rest of their teams? Why is it that when you get promoted to the top, one of the ‘perks’ is that you get your own little room?
Many firms are now opting for open plan offices as they seem to disrupt hierarchies and stimulate collaboration and their flexibility encourages spontaneous thought showers (formerly brainstorms!) and easy conversations. This spontaneity may also enhance team spirit and personal development as employees are more likely to build stronger relationships, ask for help and support and celebrate each other’s successes.
However, there are, of course, some disadvantages to open offices. Clearly, the open office does not translate well in terms of privacy. For example, when confidential information is being discussed and discretion is needed. (However, surely that's what meeting rooms are for!) Walls and cubicles also prevent constant interruption and can create a sanctuary - a refuge. Noise can be irritating and exhausting. So, a reduction in noise can make deadlines easier to meet. (But, it's good to talk and if you can't block it out then headphones should do the trick!) The ever-present threat of a Big Brother watching your every move is also significantly increased. (But if you're worried about what your colleagues will see if they look at your screen then maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place!) And, the most cynical amongst you, may think, 'most of us work alone most of the time anyway so why should we pretend that we are working as a team?' (But hopefully that's not many of you!)
If you were to follow Google’s lead, you would, of course, be designing tropical jungles where dinosaurs, filled with twirling flamingoes, can roam free. You would have tubes or fireman poles rather than lifts and hammocks instead of uncomfortable office chairs. You would have break out areas, climbing walls and tree houses. And perhaps you would be consistently ranked in the top ten best businesses to work for! Perhaps it’s worth a try…
Managers were mixed in with the masses, cutting down on the expense of managerial offices and allowing organisations to manage their workforce more flexibly. If someone got a promotion, they wouldn't graduate to a new or larger office - they might not need to change desks at all. But the many millions of people working in this kind of open-plan office today know that there is such a thing as too much communication. Proximity to our colleagues makes it easier to have a spontaneous micro-meeting, but it also means we have to sit through their deconstruction of the previous night's TV, or their shouting matches with teenage children over the phone.