Open-office floor plans are embedded in the cultural DNA of many creative agencies. In theory, they provide a collaborative space to fuel productivity, galvanize team collaboration, and promote a healthy work-life balance. As Google—one of the most visible champions of the open office—puts it, the model is designed “to spark conversation about work as well as play.”
But this idealized vision often isn’t the one that plays out. The open office can become a hotbed of distraction and wasted hours. Howard Tullman, CEO of the startup incubator 1871, likens the open office to an “entrepreneurial petting zoo,” a place “where you can’t get any serious work done.” While Tullman’s indictment is extreme, it does point to some of the drawbacks that can arise in an open environment if it’s not managed right.
One frequent consequence of open offices is a decline in individual productivity. Even at agencies that are built around constant collaboration, employees will still have specific tasks and goals that require individualized energy and singular focus. A poorly designed open floor plan can make this work extremely challenging.
As freelancer and former agency employee Lindsey Kaufman pointed out in a Washington Post piece, her agency’s move to an open office led her to a prolonged period of low productivity—one in which ambient noise and colleagues’ conversations kept her from getting meaningful work done.
In addition to productivity losses, open office spaces can actually decrease employee satisfaction. While the open floor plan has evolved with employee morale in mind—as a happiness-boosting answer to the drab isolation of a cubicle—it can also leave employees feeling an acute absence of privacy, which can fuel feelings of anxiety, confusion and resentment toward colleagues. Paradoxically, opening up an office can lead employees to be more closed off.
While vocal open-office critics like Tullman propose abandoning the model altogether, that’s a drastic step. And for many creative agencies, it’s the wrong step. Despite the issues an open floor plan can present, it also has the potential to enrich corporate culture, improve employee satisfaction—it’s what millennials want, after all—and bolster productivity. But to reap these benefits, companies must approach an open design strategically.
Here are three key steps to take:
1. Designate spaces for private work.
By setting aside quiet areas for private or small group-based work, creative agencies can maintain an open office without compromising individual productivity. If the office is not already set up in this more functional way, it can easily be modified using mobile soundproofed booths and minor interior changes.
2. Encourage and master remote work.
Open offices work best when paired with flexible remote work policies. Remote work can be from home, a client’s office, a cafe, really anywhere. Make remote work in distributed teams the norm, and have the right policies and practices in place to master it. In addition to bolstering individual productivity, a flexible remote work policy also strengthens the employee sense of privacy at work that’s vital to overall job satisfaction.
3. Establish better team-based communication tools.
In the old days, the physical office was the centerpoint of work. Today, with flexible open environments and remote work being the new normal, the centerpoint of work has moved online. To combat the sense of confusion and disorganization that can arise, agencies must prioritize better team-based online collaboration. It’s important to implement robust online tools for communication and workflow management.
In the creative world, the intent of the open floor plan is to provide a forum for teamwork, ideas and employee satisfaction. But opening the office is not a silver bullet, and there’s a fine line between attaining the Google ideal and becoming just another “entrepreneurial petting zoo.”
The difference lies in strategy. To achieve an optimal open environment, agencies must move beyond idealizing the form of the open office and instead take steps to ensure its functionally suited to their business needs.
Patric Palm is co-founder of Favro.