What is open plan office design?

An open plan office design is where staff and workstations are laid out with minimal barriers between workers, usually close to each other. Its flexibility across so many spaces made it popular – from a small office of ten through to a corporate space for hundreds. This provides employees with a sense of togetherness, which increases collaboration and spontaneous interaction. 

A brief history of open plan

Since the early 20th Century, open plan offices have been a fundamental part of UK office design.  In 1906, US architect Frank Lloyd Wright created the first open plan office, creating a space where everyone worked together - just like on the open floor of a factory. Open plan offices soon became a popular choice, since the layout was seen as more cost-effective than housing people in individual offices and smaller workspaces.  

Open plan workstations at MRI Software

The benefits of open plan

Let’s face it – office floor space can be expensive! This means that adopting an open plan layout can often be a cheaper alternative than building offices for every employee. Construction costs are reduced and overall floor space is increased by removing the need to build additional walls or partitions.

What makes open plan office design exciting is the exchange of ideas and information that can flow so much easier in a space with no barriers or walls. Colleagues tend to interact with each other on a more casual and frequent basis, which builds closer relationships over time.

As interactions increase, so does collaboration. In the modern workplace, collaboration is increasingly seen as a key driver for organisational success, as companies recognise the creativity and innovation that comes from people working together.

Steve Jobs famously paid acute attention to the location of the toilets in Apple’s office design for this exact reason. He noted that as people got up from their desks to walk across the open plan office, they would pass, interact with, and potentially collaborate with their colleagues. For Jobs, this was the path to his organisation’s success, explaining, “Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”

Colleagues talking in meeting pod
Meeting pods in Superdrug's office

The disadvantages of open plan

Open plan office design isn’t perfect. Whilst there may be a buzz and excitement resulting from increased interaction across the office, some colleagues may actually find this distracting. Uncontrolled interactions can impede our productivity and for some people, the impact of the increased noise and reduced output can increase stress levels. For introverts or more sensitive characters, the distraction can be particularly debilitating as they struggle with the busy and more stimulating environment. 

Private conversations are also more difficult in a space without walls, raising questions about confidentiality - particularly in HR, finance or legally sensitive departments. Some people even feel intimidated when others can easily see what’s on their computer screen or overhear their phone conversations.

And whilst there may be cost savings to an open plan office design, some have pointed to the impact on health and absenteeism, as colleagues pass colds and illness to each other.

Furniture is key

Modern office furniture has evolved from simple desks and chairs into smart solutions that enable particular working styles. While we still have traditional workstations, you’ll notice more and more custom made office furniture. Think of huddle booths, standing desk, breakout areas and phone booths. These have all been designed for a particular purpose and provide unique environments within an open plan layout.

Fabric covered high-backed sofas can absorb excess sound, and improve acoustics within open plan spaces. These can be used as meeting areas, with larger pods with a table and AV facilities installed providing an impromptu and intimate meeting pod. This saves floorspace through conducting smaller, informal meetings outside of large meeting rooms that remain mostly empty.

Smaller, individual pods can also be used as quiet working areas, providing a space for staff to concentrate on a task away from their desk. This affords them not only a change of scenery, but by moving away from their normal work environment, it signals to colleagues that they’re concentrating and shouldn’t be disturbed.

Modern day open plan office design truly provides the best of both worlds; you can work in a stimulating office space that promotes collaboration and team work, whilst still allowing focused work in a healthy, productive environment.