Today’s fast-paced economy requires unprecedented creativity and talent. Whether your organization is the latest digital startup or a governmental agency offering essential services, your workers need the best tools to help them drive your mission forward.

One such tool is the office space they occupy. Today, 70% of American offices use an open office layout, trading fully enclosed walls for workspaces that are separated only by small screens or panels, if even that. This popular design has several team-building and financial advantages, but works best when modified to avoid inherent challenges to sustained productivity.


Open office layouts bring workers together. Without walls to separate them, colleagues are able to quickly ask each other for assistance or advice. This ease of communication has been shown to increase feelings of camaraderie and lead to business innovation.

Additionally, removing physical barriers between employees and supervisors removes figurative ones as well. With direct access to senior talent, employees may be less reluctant to approach their superiors with ideas or concerns.

Finally, an open layout is the most cost-effective. Without the need to build and paint a lot of walls, organizations can save money on initial construction costs. An open layout traditionally also requires less tubing to be laid for electricity and air-conditioning and will keep monthly utility costs down. Because workers work around the same space, offices may also need to purchase fewer pricier machines such as printers and copiers.


Unfortunately, open layouts have a tendency to bring workers a little too close together. Though being able to tap a colleague’s shoulder for advice is great, it can be very distracting to have to listen to that colleague’s phone conversation. Too much office noise has been linked to increased anxiety, reduced concentration, and lower motivation.

The lack of privacy can also be a problem. Though having one’s computer screen visible to the whole office might encourage less Facebook and more on-task work, studies have shown that increased privacy leads to greater job satisfaction, which in turn leads to higher levels of productivity. Control over environmental settings such as light, temperature, and noise also allows for more creativity. Creative work that may require several starts is also best done away from others, even—and perhaps especially—supervisors.

Finally, open layouts also help spread disease. Without walls to protect workers from an ill colleague, germs can jump from one employee to the next. A study on the subject found that workers in an open office environment are 62% more likely to take sick leave than workers who work in closed office spaces.

Overcoming the Challenges

Open office layouts certainly yield desirable benefits, but the challenges they pose threaten to undo the positives in other ways. Fortunately, with some strategic thinking it is possible to adopt one of several best of both worlds’ hybrid approaches that will keep your team happy and productive.

One option is to create some physical barriers between departments, but to seat workers from related departments together in smaller common areas. This way, related departments can still have ease of access to each other’s personnel without being bothered by the noise of people whose work is completely different from theirs.

Another strategy is to mix an open floor plan with some offices designated for use on an as-needed basis. This will allow a worker who needs to concentrate on a particular project to remove him or herself into a quiet space in which to think.

Of course, a third possibility is to utilize a more traditional layout with individual offices but to include a common area in which workers may choose to sit together and collaborate.

Finally, taking smaller steps like providing hand sanitizer and headsets for phone calls could go a long way toward combating workplace germs and noise pollution.