Advantages and disadvantages of the open-plan office concept

20. July 2022

Small happiness or big horror in the open-plan office? The concept of the open-plan office is controversial, to say the least. Some feel perfectly at home, while others rigorously reject open-plan offices. Which type are you? We devote ourselves to the advantages and disadvantages that the office concept brings.

Open plan office definition

To get it out of the way – there are open-plan offices and there are open-plan offices. There is no clear definition of the term “open-plan office”, but it is commonly referred to as an open-plan office if the area is more than 400 square meters. According to occupational health and safety, each employee is entitled to at least 12 square meters of space. By way of comparison, in China, just under sixty cars are parked in a four-hundred-square-meter parking lot. In Germany, just 33 employees work in the same area. So a little more than half. Doesn’t sound so bad at first. So what’s the reason open-plan offices are often condemned? Let’s take a look at the history of open-plan offices.

The development of the open plan office

Beginning in 1958 and continuing into the 1970s, Henry Ford’s idea of automating and standardizing work processes first spilled out of the factory floor to office workers. With the aim of improving earnings in the administrative area as well. The workers stood on the assembly line, the employees sat in a small office cubicle. All cubicles were the same size, so the rationalization measure was sold as a democratization initiative. The office and its size as a status symbol and insignia of power had had its day. The message was that everyone was working on a common goal on equal terms. The Süddeutsche Zeitung reports the following in its article “Office nightmares made in Germany”(1): In Germany, the first open-plan office was opened at Bertelsmann in Gütersloh in 1959. Equipped with a so-called “office landscape” which had been developed by a Quickborn furniture manufacturer. What appeared chaotic were rationally planned usable landscapes of walls, carpeting, potted plants, and desks that were assigned to one another according to functional criteria. A major advantage at that time was certainly that movement came into previously rigid individual offices. Exchange was encouraged, a sense of community was created.

The great horror

In the 1990s, the (supposed) triumph of the new economy began, and with it, partitions and cubicles disappeared. Factory-floor-like rooms with rows of desks and screens emerged. At that time, supposed democratization was no longer an issue. Propagated now was the openness and readiness for constant communication. Meetings were mostly spontaneous and standing. The result was “management by wandering around,” as the article in CIO Business Magazine(2) recounts. The chef walked around like the chef of a starred restaurant among the regulars. Communicated all around and sometimes took a longer seat here or there and participated in technical discussions. The advantages here were certainly in the close exchange, which can often be motivating and empathetic. Disadvantages arose from the fact that many colleagues felt controlled and disturbed in their work. There was hardly any privacy.

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, the idea of the open-plan office returned to its roots. And in Germany, again in the media industry. So-called newsrooms, familiar from CNN and NTV, were created. The presenters were in the foreground, with a battery of frantically working journalists in the background in cramped, pseudo-creative office environments with now again fig leaf-like privacy and noise screens. Similar also to the stock exchange halls, where wild waving and loud shouting was done to make the big money. But this concept also had many disadvantages, especially the ability to concentrate was extremely limited. The advantage, however, and this is why the newsroom concept still exists today in a modified form, was that many employees received the same information at the same time and could process it immediately. Without silence-post-principle and loss of time. This increases productivity.

Small happiness in a big space

Just under ten years later, there they were: nursery-like work environments at Google, Facebook and Co. These innovative, colorful, designed open-plan offices were so beautifully and comprehensively planned and designed that employees and colleagues should escape as little as possible into something like private life beyond the company. Work, pleasure, private life – everything under one roof, if possible. At the same time, there was a proliferation of “freelancers” who opened their laptops in trendy cafés and thought of themselves more as entrepreneurs than as particularly dependent employees. If, for whatever reason, you couldn’t work in one of the great international playrooms, the café became an open-plan office. If we talk about advantages and disadvantages, the disadvantage is certainly the lack of concentration and privacy. A major benefit was the breakthrough into beautifully designed, unusual workplace scenarios that weren’t limited to just a table, chair and lamp. A new, nice approach especially for the child consumer who was now so slowly growing into the working world.

Single cell or laying battery?

If you look at the many different open-plan concepts over the course of time and compare their advantages and disadvantages, one thing becomes very clear: advantages and disadvantages balance each other out. They are quite individual. While one person can tune out the noise level in the room altogether, the other is susceptible to all kinds of distractions. In addition, it also depends on the form of the day. Do I want to sit so close to my colleagues today, or would I rather withdraw? Is my task today even suitable to be done in an open-plan office? What about my privacy?

Many studies show that open-plan offices do not help productivity, others say just the opposite. Why? Because we are human beings! We love community, but we also like to retreat. We have tasks that can be solved particularly well as a team. But there are also things that I have to work out all by myself in the privacy of my own room. Or, to put it negatively, in the single cell. Modern office concepts of the early 2020s reflect just that. Workspace specialist Satellite Office has just launched a new, groundbreaking office concept in Frankfurt: pureSilent® by Satellite Office. The workstations were planned to include individual offices, team offices and open spaces to work in. There are soundproofed seats for confidential conversations, there are cafeterias with long tables for teamwork and unconventional exchanges. But everything is aligned so that work can be concentrated and efficient at all times. Wherever that is. Whether in an open plan, individual office or team office. Completely flexible and up to date. Because we are human beings!

Our reading tip:

Nikil Saval. Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace.

Siegfried Kracauer. Employees.

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