Open plan vs closed office: which one works best?

Designing a new office isn’t what it used to be. Not so many years ago it was simply a case of ordering the standard furniture for the standard space, with the main questions being how luxurious that furniture should be and how much could reasonably be spent on it. Now business owners are spoilt for choice – but having so many options can make the process of choosing harder.

A good place to start is by deciding whether to opt for an open-plan or a traditional closed office. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and each is suited to different types of business and different ways of operating.

Open-plan offices

Open-plan offices are fantastic for companies where it’s important to have a lot of employee interaction and communication – everything from technical support centres to design studios. They work especially well for companies with high employee turnover or those that take on a lot of interns, as they can be excellent learning environments for new people and they also facilitate effective team building. The flip side is that they can get very noisy and they have to be well organised in order to control mess and avoid infrastructure like cabling getting underfoot.

Closed offices

Traditional closed offices are still the preferred work environment for many employees, but often this is because they haven’t tried an alternative. Real positives of closed offices are the quiet atmosphere they create, important for highly focused work like senior level financial management or engineering assessment, and the feeling of privacy and security within them that many people find helps them feel more comfortable at work. They’re also important – for obvious reasons – for team members whose work may include having confidential discussions.

Compromise solutions

Many offices benefit from a mixed environment – for instance, using an open plan space for junior staff to make it easier for them to get to know each other but providing some closed offices for senior staff as a symbol of their status and a means of giving them the privacy and quiet needed for more critical work. Others use cubicles with high enough walls to give employees more sense of having their own space whilst retaining a structure in which communication is fairly easy and all staff members in the office space can easily be addressed at once.

Changes over time

Open-plan offices have become more popular over time, partly as a result of changing technologies – with call management systems, for instance, becoming more effective for large teams – and partly due to improved designs in office furniture, which makes it easier to create appealing spaces that staff are happy to share. Moving into the future, it’s likely that offices will continue to open up but will at the same time become less uniform and provide more opportunity for employee expression, with more use of colour, better use of light and a move away from the approach that says every desk should look the same. Improved social spaces can also make the open-plan office into a much more enjoyable space for everyone.