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The End of a Controversial Era: Is the Open Office Dying?

open office
Credit: Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock

Over the past decade, many modern offices have transitioned from private to open, with a floorplan free of cubicles or closed workspaces, and lined with shared tables. According to an infographic by Sage on open office plans, 80 percent of U.S. businesses implement this type of layout, including Apple, Google and Facebook.

Open offices can be a great setup for many companies, depending on the structure of their team and the nature of their work. A more collaborative workforce, for instance, is typically more successful in this environment than an independent one.

Like any office structure, there are pros and cons to the open office. According to Flame Schoeder, ICF-credentialed life coach, success in this layout depends on the type of worker.

"I've noticed that it is hardest on introverts, those with sensitive nervous systems and those who tie their self-worth to the status of a 'corner office,'" she said.

However, on the other hand, the open office breeds more collaboration and stronger bonds, Schoeder said.

"This increases everyone's innate sense of accountability in their culture, which can make it easier to solve problems and get work done," she added. "There can also be a more casual connection, and therefore more authentic, between bosses and employees."

The open office has become the norm for most businesses, in an effort to create a more inclusive, cost-effective workplace. But this layout has also received backlash, with many workers feeling less productive and less valued – and more insecure and distracted.

"Ironically, some of the cons similarly related to camaraderie and transparency involve not having any privacy and feeling like you can’t concentrate – every conversation you have is fodder for public knowledge," said Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster.com

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study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, & Health found that "employees working in small or medium-sized open-plan offices consistently reported lower levels of job satisfaction, subjective well-being, and ease of interaction with co-workers than employees working in cellular or shared-room offices."

Additionally, Sage reported that in open offices, productivity is reduced by 15 percent, sick days are increased by 62 percent and distractions are increased by 54 percent, impacting even the highest-performing employees. These findings show an alarming disconnect between preferred office layout and employee efficiency and happiness.

Does that mean the open office is dead? Not necessarily.

Despite its downsides, the open office plan is still valued by many leaders. For instance, Salemi stated that the setup is appropriate from a financial perspective, which is a common reason why many employers choose it over others.

"Put as many people together as possible and see where organic conversations and brainstorming sessions occur," Salemi said.

However, it certainly has its issues – and they're worth factoring into your decision. [Not sure which office is right for your business? Check out this article.]

"Each organization … needs to think long and hard about whether [an open office] works with their culture and what they hope to achieve before committing to it," said Schoeder. "It's a commitment of more than just construction costs. Whatever is in your culture will be amplified by taking down the walls."

There's much controversy regarding the workplace of the future, with many workplace experts predicting an end to open offices, and others claiming it will remain the preferred (and most affordable) option. There's no way to know for sure; but if the workforce does shift its preferred office plan, it will be for good reason.

Sammi Caramela

Sammi Caramela has always loved words. When she isn't working as a Purch B2B staff writer, she's writing (and furiously editing) her first novel, reading a YA book with a third cup of coffee, or attending local pop-punk concerts. The only time Sammi doesn't play it safe is when she's writing. Reach her by email, or check out her blog at sammisays.org.