Innovate October 2017

Out of the Box: Pros and Cons of the Open-Plan Office for Startups


Written By: Genevieve Howard, Marketing Coordinator, Trimark Properties Photography provided by Trimark Properties

You won’t find many startup headquarters filled wall-to-wall with private offices or monotonous seas of cubicles in Gainesville’s Innovation Square.

As an influx of pioneering tech startups continue to establish headquarters in the burgeoning business hub, developers are designing office spaces that reflect the forward-thinking, team-oriented culture of these companies. The traditional office designs of the past have been completely remodeled: cubicle farms, which have become a satirical cultural metaphor for workplace dissatisfaction (ever seen “Office Space”?), are phasing out while supervisors and owners are leaving their enclosed offices and joining their staffs on the floor.

Workplaces are now characterized by vast open areas, furnished modestly with clusters of large tables and various areas for standing and sitting. All employees work alongside each other with no dividing partitions in sight. Once only seen in the offices of larger Silicon Valley tech companies, this style of office layout has now made its way to the workplaces of emerging firms in smaller urban cities like Gainesville.

This shift to an open-plan office comes in response to the changing views of the traditional business model, as companies are now placing more value on employee engagement and team synergy in efforts to improve workplace productivity. Supporters of the open-layout office claim that with no dividing panels or separated rooms, communication barrier and hierarchical barriers are broken down and the remaining workspace is an environment

that facilitates the exchange of ideas, encourages teamwork and inspires creativity among employees. For a startup, where workflow relies on collaboration, this layout seems ideal.

While the open-layout floor plan has become a go-to trend both locally and nationally, many skeptics question whether this style of design is the most beneficial for long-term organizational growth. With the potential for distractions and a significant lack of privacy, many believe that the cons outweigh the pros. Before making the leap to an open-plan office layout, companies should assess the advantages and disadvantages of the concept to evaluate whether it’s ideal for their teams.

PROS

Communication barriers are broken down

An open-plan office eliminates barriers of communication among all workers and branches of the company.

With all employees constantly interacting together in one vicinity, they can bounce creative ideas off each other and benefit from listening to a variety of perspectives when working on projects or making important business decisions. Open offices also facilitate interaction between different departments, allowing cross-functional teams to be organized easily, depending on the layout.

As communication barriers are broken down, so are the organization’s hierarchical barriers. With everyone working in the same area, no one feels as if they are playing a secondary role. Even higher-ups such as managers and owners are choosing to work alongside their employees instead of working in secluded offices, which can often make them seem intimidating and unapproachable. With this style of office layout, individuals are more likely to feel as if they are part of the team, automatically boosting morale and engagement.

Layout flexibility better accommodates company growth

Traditional office spaces generally do not make the best use of available space, which limits the number of employees who can comfortably work in the building. Buildings jam-packed with bulky cubicles and enclosed offices restrict free areas and make office floor plans inflexible in terms of business expansion. Due to this lack of space, startups often need to relocate buildings as they become more established in order to accommodate growing staff and operations. With the open-plan office, tables and desks can easily be re-arranged to make room for a growing number of personnel.

Cost-Effective

Open office layouts are generally more economical than traditional layouts, which feature a plethora of single cubicles and desks that can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars each. Open-plan offices are often furnished with large tables that can fit as many as 10 workers for the same cost as one cubicle, reducing office expenses and furniture upkeep.

 

CONS

High noise levels can disrupt workflow and concentration

The most convincing argument against the open-plan office is that it increases the potential for interruptions that can interfere with daily work. It can be difficult for team members to focus when a group of 30 other coworkers are talking near them, especially when the conversations aren’t about work. Instead of talking about the upcoming work meeting, for example, employees might be tempted to discuss the latest episode of “Game of Thrones,” negatively impacting productivity for themselves and everyone around them. Research has backed up this concern: In 2011, organizational psychologists with the University of Leeds reviewed over 100 studies on office settings and discovered that open office layouts increase disruptions, lower concentration and can even demotivate the entire workforce.

Privacy is compromised 

Another downside to the open-layout floor plan is the lack of privacy for team members. Since employees often share space at a large table with groups of coworkers, they generally won’t have a private office, a personal desk or even dividing partitions to shield them from the eyes of colleagues. This makes it difficult to have personal conversations or a brief moment of solitude.

Stress-inducing environment

While a benefit of an open office layout is the ability to accommodate company growth by fitting more people, its associated con is that too many people can be packed into one area, resulting in an overcrowded workspace. For introverted team members or for those who have just joined the company and don’t yet feel part of the group, this crowd can be overwhelming. Employees can also feel as if supervisors are constantly looking over their shoulders and judging their work, which can lead to higher amounts of pressure and stress.

Finding a Balance

In an effort to find a compromise between traditional and open-plan offices, real estate developers are collaborating with companies to design floor plans that merge the two layouts. The result is a hybrid office, which amalgamates private offices, cubicle stalls, and conference rooms with open, communal work areas in order to provide companies with equilibrium between team friendly layouts and breakout spaces.

Hybrid layouts are common in the offices of the startups located in Innovation Square. One of the best examples of a synergetic mix between shared and solitary space is at the Nimbus office building, home to SharpSpring. The marketing automation firm collaborated with Trimark Properties, a local real estate firm known for its development and renovation of office space in Gainesville, to create a space that would promote collaboration through its open work areas while still providing enough quiet sections for staff members to take phone calls, work independently or have a moment of peace.

Both floors of the two-story building are characterized by spacious, open work ranges — but they also have at least 10 private offices and a conference room on each floor for plenty of breakout space. Many of the individual offices are enclosed by glass walls instead of drywall, providing employees with segregated areas that won’t completely isolate them from their teams. The building also exhibits phone-booth style offices, which are sequestered spaces as small as 4 feet by 6 feet that are ideal for more intimate phone calls.

“An open-plan office environment that encourages collaboration and eases the flow of communication between team members is undoubtedly beneficial for new companies that are in the process of establishing their product and identity,” said John Fleming, managing partner of Trimark Properties. “With that being said, it is essential that these office spaces still include separate, secluded work areas that provide employees with the privacy and solitude that is sometimes necessary for one-on-one meetings and concentration on individual tasks.”

The office environment of a startup is crucial in terms of company development. Designing a workplace that is catered to fit the needs of individual staff members and the team as a whole by blending private and community spaces results in an office that cultivates team unity and fosters the most efficient level of employee productivity. It’s a win-win.

 

GENEVIEVE HOWARD is the marketing coordinator at local real estate firm Trimark Properties. A 2016 graduate from the University of Florida’s Heavener School of Business and devoted Florida Gator fan, she is passionate about her career that allows her to blend her love for communications, marketing, real estate and history.

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