Open plan versus closed-space offices – the pros and cons

Open plan versus closed-space offices

Open-plan offices have firmly established themselves as an enduring design and layout, but many businesses are converting to closed-space offices or combining the best of both worlds. Each particular layout has its own benefits and drawbacks, and some layouts and combinations work better for certain businesses than others.

We’ve examined some of the most important pros and cons these office styles pose. If you would like to discuss the potential of open-plan and closed-plan offices, please feel free to get in touch.

Creative spaces

When you think of open-plan offices, you might think of rows of desks, with people sat facing the same way or facing each other, separated by a computer monitor, as seen in the classrooms of our childhood. This is a suitable design scheme for some offices, such as when staff typically need to work by themselves but may need to discuss issues with colleagues occasionally, but in more creative industries, this layout can be limiting.

If you want to promote discussion with staff in your office, then why not consider creating specialised spaces for each working-group, with desks facing each-other? You could also think about round tables for group discussions away from the glare of the monitor, and harbour-shaped layouts with a manager near-surrounded by other members of staff to support staff training and assistance.

However, it can be very hard to control noise in these environments, and businesses may be concerned that it is hard to monitor the office and understand its cohesiveness. A range of different solutions have been created for this problem.

Closed spaces

If your business does not require your staff to talk to each-other so much, then this office layout will likely encourage idle chat and potential timewasting. Even the classroom-style layout can be unforgiving when conversation between colleagues is low – it’s hard for people to follow a separate train of thought when someone else is talking to them, and when people are too busy to talk to each-other, the lack of noise other than the perpetual clatter of keyboards can be imposing.

In open-plan offices, businesses try to deal with these problems by playing the radio, but even this solution isn’t ideal – it’s impossible to find a radio station that will please everyone. Closed-space offices give workers the possibility to work quietly by themselves and tailor their environment to their requirements, regardless of whether this involves opening a window, playing Classic FM, closing the curtains or adding personal twists to their workspace.

But space is at a premium in the modern office. Is there really enough room for everyone to have a private space for themselves?

Free-flowing offices

There’s not necessarily any need to follow tradition when designing your office layout, depending on your industry. In this era of always-on connectivity, tablet computers, laptops and wi-fi, many businesses have found that they can forgo standard desks and can create free offices, with plenty of space for people to work in their preferred locations, move their computer to talk and collaborate with a colleague.

Unfortunately, this layout isn’t appropriate for all businesses and all groups of employees, but some common concerns about this kind of layout could be misplaced. You might worry that staff can avoid important meetings, or delay submitting reports by hiding themselves away – but VoIP tools like Skype and instant messaging tools like Google Talk make it easy for bosses to find other staff members at their convenience. The fear of slacking might be overblown, too – especially in the face of collaborative software that enables managers to keep a watchful eye on the behaviour of their team from anywhere in the world.

An office where people feel like they can work everywhere also recognises the range of working styles your staff may have and demonstrates the company’s trust in their skills and their inherent independence. One person may even go through several working styles in a particular day, and will benefit from being able to move around over this time; one hour they might want some private time in a tucked-away corner, preparing for a collaboration, and the next hour they may need to work with a team, collaborating effectively by communicating constantly.

But the free-flowing office can be too great a change for many businesses – is there a middle ground?

Cubicles

A common layout in the modern office is the cubicle – but does this take the best from open-plan and closed-style offices, or the worst?

Cubicles consist of desks that are enclosed by short dividers, which act to prevent workplace distractions while providing people with a space to personalise and make their own. However, they can also don’t receive much natural light, and it can be impossible to get some fresh air or block out external noises without headphones.

If there’s a dearth of conversation in your open-plan office, the privacy that a cubicle provides may offer some improvements to a large, silent room. You might find that people are more willing to talk to each-other when they feel like they can communicate privately, whereas in a large, quiet area, they may worry that everyone can overhear them. Don’t underestimate people’s love for personal space!

Modern office design solutions

It’s now possible to create an open-plan office with a variety of different acoustic areas, which create a free-flowing array of creative spaces and private locations. Furniture can now be designed to block out noise from one area of a room and to amplify noise from another area, and to be tall enough to block out the view of the rest of the office, creating a quiet space that people feel free to use when they need it while ensuring this conversation does not distract anyone else.

These solutions mean that it is possible for offices to contain a number of different creative zones within a small space, and provide workers with the opportunity to utilise both personal and shared spaces when required. Old ideas of open-plan offices may soon come to an end, with the workplace of the future combining the best of both closed-space and open-plan designs.

If you would like more ideas for your office design, take a look at our case studies.