Open plan offices – good or bad?

Posted on 31st July 2019

Whether you are in an open plan office or looking at this as an option, it’s a good thing to consider whether it will work for your particular business, whilst being considerate of the needs of your employees.

I’ve worked in a few different offices in my time and I’d say there are benefits to both, but it depends on the type of work the employees are undertaking, and their personal comfort levels.

What does it mean to those who work in HR?

Of course, if you think about it from a HR perspective, sat amongst employees in an open plan office probably isn’t the greatest decision. Although HR should be both seen, heard and present within an organisation, much of their work is confidential so I believe there should be a designated office for this type of work. However, it is up to those in HR to ensure they emerge from that space often! In the past I’ve had screen privacy filters which worked well, but when I wanted to have a sensitive conversation over the phone I either:

  1. had to find another room and print all the information to take with me (not beneficial to the environment to do this every time when I could’ve had it on screen)
  2. couldn’t have the conversation because the other rooms were in use, so reverted to email or a minimally worded conversation (We all know what I mean by that, the kind that starts with “Mmm” and ends in “Hmm” and plenty of “Yes” and “No”). Plus, employees are more likely to be worried about walking up to you in a designated office rather than in the middle of an open plan room with the gazes of fellow colleagues upon them.
What about our employees?

So, what about for our employees in their day to day roles? As I mentioned, I’ve worked in sales offices where an open plan has real benefits. It creates a buzz, it makes communication easier, aids competition, creates a dynamic team environment and also allows others to learn on the job from more experienced employees. However, there is a “but”, some employees just don’t enjoy that kind of environment. They are much more productive in their own space. There are many reasons as to why this might be, personality / their team role or indeed learning style does come into play.

One thing I’d specifically like to pick up on is invisible or hidden disabilities. These are disabilities that are not immediately apparent. Some employees may not even be aware that they have a disability because it is in such a mild form. For example, ADHD, anxiety disorders and learning disabilities can lead to an open plan environment being absolutely torturous for them. Even the thought can give rise to complete panic or disruption for them. They can be affected by many different things, such as noise distraction, visual distractions and even the sheer number of people in one area can be extremely difficult for people.

This is one of the areas that will never really equate to an answer of “good” or “evil” in my opinion, depending on the role, but more importantly depending on the person. I’m not saying to now start to begin propping up the partition walls, but it is something employers need to be aware of. It’s also something that is important during the recruitment stage. This can be done by ensuring candidates have a tour of their potential new working environment. After all, it is as much for them to decide whether they want to work with you as it is you with them.

Of course, you can’t always determine whether this wont be an issue upon a new employee starting with you. However, it is good practice to understand from them the types of environments they are comfortable in and where they produce their best work.

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Charlotte Batchelor Character
Written by:
Charlotte Batchelor
HR Adviser