As workforces adapt to pandemic safety measures, a trending topic in commercial real estate is open floor plan offices: to lease them, or to let them go? Even though our ranks of vaccinated Americans are growing, as of July 15, the CDC says only 48.3% of Americans are fully vaccinated. Many of those who can work from home are doing so, and the media buzzes with questions about what the common workforce will look like. Visit a bank, grocery store or doctor’s office, and you’ll speak to the staff through plexiglass dividers. After building so many wide-open indoor spaces, are we shutting our personal spaces off again?
An open floor plan office is one that allows the majority of space to be shared without divisions by walls, windows or cubicles. Rather than the crowded, cubicle-filled offices that have now become a television trope signalling a dry, dated workplace, open floor plans call to mind startups and coworking spaces. According to the Guardian, the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright invented this type of layout, debuting it in an office that opened in 1906. More recently, National Geographic attributes a contemporary rise in open floor plans in commercial real estate to jobs increasing after the 2008 recession. Fewer divisions means less dead space, and more opportunity to push desks together, or even allow workers to share work surfaces.
Many open floor layouts arrange desks in long rows, with workers staggered or even facing each other with back to back monitors. While it’s easy to talk at a desk, these arrangements usually offer separate common spaces for more direct collaboration, or just a place to take a break. A lack of dividing walls also means tons of light can flood in from large spreads of uninterrupted windows.
These things mean an open floor plan office looks airy and inviting, matching the way cultural attitudes have shifted from working to provide, to working to connect with a greater purpose. More people expect to enjoy their time at work, and open floor plan offices give an air of freedom. Unfortunately, with freedom comes responsibility, and people have questioned being in unnecessarily close proximity to others, especially while the pandemic is still active. They’ve also gotten used to working alone. A Gallup poll in April 2020 showed 70% of people working remotely at least some of the time, which dropped to 56% in early 2021. Only 38% in the beginning of this year said they would prefer to return to the office.
Most importantly, to many lessees and buyers, an open floor plan office is cost-effective on the surface. It’s simple: less square footage is needed to fit more workers. It also reduces construction costs, utilities and even furnishing costs. Capterra found that while it costs $60,000 to set up an office with 50 cubicles, it only costs $24,000 for one with the same number of desks. And if the initial setup doesn’t work out, furniture can easily be rearranged in a wide-open space without running into construction costs. However, there are some debates about cost effectiveness in the long run, when labor efficiency comes into play.
Another simple benefit is the ability to whisper, “hey,” to a nearby employee and not clog each other’s emails for quick communication. While we have plenty of ways to communicate through walls (including getting up and walking to the door), nothing beats the ease of speaking to someone who is already right there. The Harvard Business review found in their open floor plan office study that “In general, the farther apart people are, the less they communicate.” That can be good for clearing up gridlock and miscommunication, but not as good if focus is an issue. Without a door to close or even a cubicle wall to peer around, it can feel like a worker’s time is not really their own.
The pros and cons debates of open floor plan offices are evergreen, but after 2020, the topic of virology weighs much more heavily. Whether it’s about COVID-19, the flu, or something else altogether, it’s hard to deny that we’re less likely to get sick when we don’t have someone breathing feet away from us for hours on end every day.
John Hopkins Medicine issued a report explaining a dramatic downward trend in flu cases during the last flu season: “‘Though caused by a different virus...everything we are doing to slow transmission of COVID-19, such as wearing face masks, frequent handwashing and physical distancing, should also reduce transmission of flu,’ says Eili Klein, Ph.D., associate professor of emergency medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.”
Whatever the cause or the industry, it’s well-known that worker satisfaction results in a more efficient company, and higher profits. It should be a consideration in leasing any commercial real estate. There are studies that find both increased and decreased worker satisfaction in open floor plan offices, but an analysis of over 100 studies by organizational psychologist Matthew Davis found that less structure had an overall negative effect.
One office type won’t be perfect for every worker in every industry. It’s most important to consider the particular needs of the company before leasing. However, to appeal to open floor plan supporters and opponents alike, there are some possible compromises. Most offices should have a common space. They can offer half-cubicles or just short dividers, and single walls can divide large areas.
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