Workspaces Office Design

Open offices vs. closed offices: Which is better?

Sep 9, 2020
When you're choosing an office, should you go for an open or a closed office? It depends on your business and how you'll use the office after COVID-19.

There has been a lot of debate in recent years over open offices and closed offices, and which office type is better.

 

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has added urgency to some of these conversations, leading office workers and companies alike to ask basic questions about workplace safety — and what kinds of offices will best support the demand for safe, collaborative spaces needed after COVID-19.

 

In truth, each workspace has its benefits and most savvy businesses take a hybrid approach, mixing open plan workspaces with private spaces. That’s because research shows people want a variety of ways to work throughout their workday.

 

But figuring out what mix of open and closed workspaces works best for your business means knowing the key differences between the two office designs.

 

Below, we’ve highlighted the pros and cons of each layout and how to find the best office solution for your business.

 

This guide includes:

 

What are the differences between open offices and closed offices?

At the most basic level, the key difference between open and closed offices is rooted in their layout and design. Where open offices favor open plan designs free of barriers, closed offices leverage barriers and partitions to offer individuals and team private spaces to work.

 

Here’s a breakdown of what each office layout looks in practice:

What are open offices?

Open offices are intended to remove barriers that divide workers. Defined by their lack of partitions of any kind, you won’t find walls, cubicles or other divisions between workspaces.

 

In many open-plan layouts, employees work side-by-side at long worktables with individual computers spaced at intervals. Open plan spaces also tend to feature common lounge areas for collaborative get-togethers.

 

Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, says that open spaces are typically chosen when companies “want more open, more collaborative, more interactive spaces that are also less expensive.”

What are closed offices?

Closed offices place a much larger emphasis on privacy via partitioned individual workspaces. These can take the form of cubicles, private offices and clustered team workspaces.

 

Closed office layouts often strategically combine cordoned off space, private offices, cloistered lounge areas and private phone rooms to provide workers with private space that minimizes noise and distractions.

A Key Takeaway: It’s Rarely One or The Other

Very few workspaces are entirely open or entirely closed. Often, companies will invest in hybrid workspaces that blend open and closed areas across an office floor plate.

 

The reason is simple: Open office floor plans are well suited for open communication and involved teamwork, while closed office layouts are well suited for individual work.

 

At Hana, our workspaces are prime example of this hybrid approach. We offer a mix of open spaces and private offices, individual focus rooms and quiet nooks, allowing our members choose their environment based on the work they’re doing.

What are the pros and cons of an open office vs. a closed office?  

Make no mistake: Each office layout has unique advantages — and unique disadvantages. Below, you’ll find the pros and cons of each office layout broken down and contrasted with one another.

The advantages of open offices

      • Open offices can improve team communication and collaboration: With almost no walls or partitions to speak of, the wide-open nature of an open plan office lends itself well to cross-team collaboration, impromptu conversations and regular face-to-face contact with colleagues. (But this isn’t always the case. See the disadvantages below.)  
      • Open offices can result in lower occupancy costs: Fewer walls, dividers and private offices means that setting up an open office requires less of a build-out than a closed office.
      • Open offices can promote a flat hierarchy: For companies that maintain a flat organization — one with few levels of management between executives and employees — the open office layout puts everyone on equal footing. Without “better” or more private workspaces to reward more senior employees, the open office can feel like an egalitarian workplace.

      • Open offices can make it easier to supervise teams: With employees out in the open, it is easier for management to monitor performance and provide motivation in real-time.

      • Open offices can offer more natural light across the workspace: Given the lack of barriers, open office layouts in buildings with windows tend to enjoy better access to natural light, a top workplace perk.

open-office-common-space

The disadvantages of open offices

      • Open offices are frequently critiqued for being too noisy: Given that office noise is one of the most common workplace complaints, one of the top critiques of open-plan offices is that they are too loud. Without barriers to dampen sound, general office din — loud typing, ringing phones or nearby conversations — becomes nearly impossible to shut out.
      • Open offices can, ironically, damage team interactions: While it may seem counterintuitive, open office layouts can actually hinder in-person conversation.

        A study conducted by researchers at Harvard found “that face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after firms transitioned to open offices.”

        Why? People were more likely to leverage digital communications (think Slack or email) instead of face-to-face communication to preserve some sense of privacy.
      • Open offices often lack private workspaces: Even though sitting out in the open can have its advantages, it leaves workers without dedicated space for uninterrupted heads-down work or a true space to call their own.
      • Open offices can lead to increased workplace drama: Close proximity to colleagues means crowded personal space. This can lead to misunderstandings and conflict, and, if not managed, can hurt productivity and increase stress levels among employees.

The advantages of closed offices

      • Closed offices can offer more quiet and private workspaces: Closed office layouts have the obvious advantage of offering more quiet and private spaces for employees to engage in focused work with fewer distractions.

        With quiet being one of the most sought after workplace perks, having a closed private space allows workers to control the volume in their workspace, which isn’t as easy to do in an open office.

      • Closed offices typically mean fewer distractions: People are less likely to interrupt someone if they have to knock on a door or navigate around walls and other enclosures. That’s why closed offices tend to lessen the number of distractions and interruptions workers encounter in a day.
      • Closed offices can lead to a clearer sense of organizational hierarchy: The closed office environment can help reinforce an office hierarchy and incentivize workers. As members move up the ranks, they can be granted better workspaces — private offices or closer proximity to windows, for example.

closed-office-design

The disadvantages of closed offices

      • Closed offices can lead to team isolation: More privacy can lead to less interaction. And if teams aren’t grouped strategically, closed office arrangements can lead to teams or individuals working in silos.

      • Closed offices can make it harder to manage employees: With barriers, walls and private rooms, managers can’t as easily keep an eye on employee activity as they can in open offices. This is especially difficult for companies that prefer a more proactive approach to management.

      • Closed offices can lead to less random interaction and organic conversation: Closed office layouts can thwart the organic conversations and random interactions so prized in open plan offices. Why? Because you can’t simply turn around and ask a colleague in marketing a question. Instead, you have to head over to someone’s private office or cubicle.
      • Closed offices can be more expensive to build and maintain: Where open offices feature few, if any, walls, partitions or specialized furniture, closed offices require an abundance of these things. All this customization comes at a cost and requires regular upkeep, edging occupancy costs ever higher.

The Key Takeaway

 

Both layouts have their benefits and drawbacks. While open offices are prized for improving collaboration, communication and random interactions, they can also end up being noisy and distracting, if not properly designed.

 

And while closed offices enjoy greater privacy, there are more barriers to interaction. It’s easy for individuals and teams to become isolated and more difficult for managers to keep an eye on their employees.

How to find the best office solution for your team 

Choosing the best office layout for you really depends on the type of work your business does and how your teams — and employees — function best.

 

Remember: You don’t have to choose between an open and closed office. You have to figure out what the best mix of the two will be for your teams and employees.

 

One way to determine the best office solution is to ask yourself these three simple questions:

 

      • How do my team and I work most effectively?
      • What things are my team and I doing throughout my day?
      • Does my team need a space where it’s easy to talk to people, or is the bulk of our time spent on quiet, heads-down work?

By answering these questions, you can better understand what type of physical space will help your team feel productive.

 

If your business is a large organization with privacy needs such as a financial services company, or you find yourself doing a lot of individual and focused work, a closed office setup is likely a better fit.

 

If you have a need for more regular communication and don’t need barriers to feel secure, an open layout can keep you in easier touch with your colleagues.

 

For many workers, however, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. Most businesses and workspace designers are now blending open and closed workspaces to offer their employees the ability to choose where they work in a given day.

 

For some businesses, this means incorporating closed-office elements into open-office layouts to give workers private spaces for focused work while retaining open spaces for more collaborative work.

The Key Takeaway

 

Determining what tasks you do on a daily basis and how you work best is an easy way to figure out which office solution is optimal for you. And while semi-open workspaces that blend the best of open and closed offices are becoming more popular, they aren’t yet widespread.

Are open offices or closed offices better after COVID-19? 

Among the many facets of our lives COVID-19 has impacted over the course of 2020, it’s had an immediate impact on how we think about the office — and what offices we’ll want to work in after the coronavirus pandemic.

 

Even as some headlines have touted the potential benefits for companies that forego the office entirely and adopt a remote-first approach, companies are still investing in office space. Facebook, for example, announced plans to add 730,000-plus square feet of office space in New York City.

 

Why? Because the office offers a number of benefits we still can’t replicate digitally. In a survey earlier this year, we found the number one thing people miss most from the office is in-person interactions, both random and planned.

 

Part of that stems from the fact it’s difficult to collaborate effectively online — and it’s even harder to capture the benefits of in-person conversation around the water cooler on apps such as Slack.

 

So, what office layouts make the most sense after COVID-19?

 

The answer depends on a number of factors. Where some say it can be more difficult to implement safety standards and social distancing in open offices, others point to new layouts, improved HVAC standards and enhanced cleaning measures as appropriate safety precautions.

 

Similar arguments abound around closed office layouts, too.

 

The real question is what office layout makes the most sense for your team — and you. And that involves thinking through what types of work will need to happen in the office in a post-COVID-19 world.

 

open-office-vs-closed-office-post-covid19-whats-better

 

At Hana, we see a strong demand for workspaces that enable individual work, so employees have the optionality to use an office when they need to do focused tasks. But we also are seeing a strong demand for collaborative spaces that allow teams to safely work together on group tasks.

 

According to McKinsey, organizations will need to “create workspaces specifically designed to support the kinds of interactions that cannot happen remotely.” If, for instance, “the primary purpose of an organization’s space is to accommodate specific moments of collaboration rather than individual work,” that organization will need to invest in workspaces that enable collaboration.

 

To determine what type of office space will make the most sense for your team after COVID-19, think through the types of work your organization is having difficulty carrying out remotely and think through how an office can fill that gap.

 

Employees after COVID-19 are expected to demand more flexibility to work remote at least part of the week, meaning the time they spend in the office will be more intentional. The mix of open and closed office spaces you invest in after COVID-19 should reflect the work your employees expect to do in the office.

Take this with you

Many of the differences between open and closed office designs are easy to pinpoint. Closed offices, for instance, are typically designed to give workers more privacy, while open office layouts often foster increased team communication

 

Completely open workspace environments can be distracting (although appropriate acoustic treatments can resolve this), but may help foster organic in-person connections. Closed workspaces are expensive but give workers quiet and privacy, boosting productivity. So, which is better?

 

The answer is that it depends — and frequently, it’s not a one/or but a both/and. Especially in light of COVID-19, determining what office layouts work best for your business and teams will require thinking through what work you’re most likely to do in the office after the coronavirus pandemic. And for many, it’s a mixture of collaborative work — something that’s difficult to effectively do online — and individually focused work.

 

At Hana, we create offices that blend open and closed workspaces, offering private retreats for focused work and collaborative spaces for team collaboration.

 

But what matters most is choosing the right office solution that fully supports the work your team is doing.

 

 

Looking for an office that fully supports your team — and addresses the new way of work? We’re here to help. Learn more about how a flexible workspace solution can enable your team to connect, collaborate and perform in this new world of work.

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