Do Open-Concept Offices Promote Innovation?

Do open-concept offices live up to their hype when it comes to encouraging innovation and collaboration? Or do they hinder productivity by sacrificing privacy - and in some cases, comfort? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

Picture this: you’re sitting at your desk with your morning coffee, and you’ve taken a few moments to collect your thoughts and prepare for the day. You say hello to a couple coworkers who walk in and sit at desks all around you—no walls except the four that enclose the space. You turn to your colleague sitting next to you to talk about a challenge complicating your latest idea that has you stumped. You have this great idea, but you’re not sure how it will work unless you can solve the problem. She listens carefully, then asks, “Well, couldn’t you….” and gives you some feedback. All of a sudden, it seems so simple. THIS is what you needed—someone to bounce ideas off of, whenever you need to.

If that scenario is appealing to you, then you’re probably a fan of open-concept offices. Many people are—in 2014, around 70% of offices used low or no partitions in their design. There’s a lot to like about the trend—the camaraderie, the constant availability of people to collaborate with. But does this open communication feed innovation? Could your organization benefit from breaking down walls and innovating together? Let’s take a look.

Innovative Collaboration

Obviously, the biggest draw of an open-concept floor plan for companies is to help establish a culture of innovation and open communication. When you have an idea you want to share with a coworker, a problem you’re stuck on, or just want inspiration, it’s easy to turn to a colleague and pick their brain. Open office plans can also foster collaboration and bring the team closer together, which can lead to a more supportive atmosphere during the innovative process. It also makes joint projects much easier, whether your team is trying to create a new product, increase efficiency, or improve on existing technology.

Sacrificing Productivity and Privacy

Of course, open communication is great for inspiration and innovation, but it does require sacrificing some productivity and privacy. Research indicates that productivity takes a hit in an open office, with one study estimating that the open office sacrifices 15% of workers’ productivity. That’s not insignificant—especially since innovation relies on hard work and productivity to bring ideas to life. There are a few reasons it’s more difficult to concentrate in an open office space—lack of privacy, constant interruptions, and noise levels all have an impact on our ability to work effectively. Yet, it’s important for leaders to understand that open communication allows for increased knowledge, something particularly important in the digital age where the difference between information and knowledge is often misunderstood.

Too Limiting?

One other issue with an open-concept office is that it can potentially be limiting. Team members need time and space to generate ideas using their own methods, and people have wildly different preferences. While some employees may feel comfortable and creative in an open-concept environment, others may need a change of scenery to get work done. Limiting the team to one space can reduce the options employees have for fostering creativity. This is why some organizations are considering a new approach for the modern office—a hybrid concept offering open spaces for collaboration and private spaces for more focused work.

The Rise (and Potential Fall) of Open Offices

Thanks to a processing shift in corporate culture, you’ll now find open offices in both squat brick buildings to many of the 1000+ skyscrapers across the world. There’s no doubt that the open-concept office took off in recent years, especially among startups looking to emulate the big tech players like Google. Many companies looking to “disrupt” whole industries believed that the open-concept office allowed for improved communication and innovation. However, the fad has begun to fall out of favor as studies have revealed some of the open office’s weaknesses and many workers have begun to express their preferences for privacy. The bottom line, however? The spontaneous communication an open-concept floor plan offers might be just what a small startup needs—but a more mature company might look for innovation inspiration in the latest fad: the hybrid office, blending the best of both worlds.

By Ryan Ayers

About the author

Ryan Ayers has consulted a number of companies within multiple industries including information technology and big data. After earning his MBA in 2010, Ayers also began working with start-up companies and aspiring entrepreneurs, with a keen focus on data collection and analysis.

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