A lack of walls or other physical barriers in open-plan office spaces make it easier for employees to interact with each other on a regular basis. The constant interacting not only generates a sense of fellowship among employees, it also enhances the flow of information and teamwork. Colleagues can turn to each other for advice or assistance without having to knock on doors or schedule a formal meeting. Interactions in an open-plan office space generally are more frequent and informal than in closed environments where everyone has a seperate office space.
The increased collaboration resulting from open-plan work space can lead to business innovation and advancement. At the sametime, an open-plan layout can benefit the business economically by reducing costs tied to construction, utilities and office equipment. For example, fewer walls mean less time and materials required to create the office space. Having a single work space also may reduce heating/cooling and electricity expenses thanks to improved flow of air and light. Businesses can save on equipment investment as well, since communal spaces promote shared use of resources, such as printers and photocopiers. An open-plan space also provides greater flexibility to accomodate evolving personnel needs.
The high level of everyday interaction that takes place in an undivided work space may lead to noise and distraction that make it difficult for employees to focus on their work and conduct business. Lack of privacy is another potential problem with open-plan office spaces, where computer screens are easily visible by those walking by and telephone conversations are likely to be overheard. Open-plan layouts also facilitate the spread of illnesses, so if a colleague comes to work with a cold, it can affect the health of the entire staff.
Most of the factors that are disadvantages for employees also are detrimental to the business as a whole. For example, the distractions caused by frequent interactions among staff members and high levels of noise can result in decreased productivity. Business output also may be reduced by the higher rate of absenteeism associated with open-plan environments in which illnesses spread more easily. In addition, the lack of privacy inherent in open-plan designs may give rise to legal or ethical issues stemming from compromised confidentiality in regard to clients or colleagues.
Looking at the bigger picture it seems that one size doesn’t fit all. The question is not whether we need privacy in our office spaces. The question is how to configure the space so that workers can move to the right type of environment for whatever tasks they happen to be working on.
In a Harvard Business Review article about why those who work in co-working spaces tend to be more productive than the average worker, a group of researchers from the University of Michigan write that being connected to a community at work is important, but a successful workspace has a mix of different kinds of space.