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Private Offices vs. “Open Office” Concepts for Workspaces

Commercial Office

Private Offices vs. “Open Office” Concepts for Workspaces

Over the years, the popular (and researched) opinions about what makes for an ideal workspace have shifted from recommending private offices, to semi-private, to the so-called “open office” concepts, and back. But, different types of workspaces are ideal for different types of companies, based on budget, type of work, company culture, and more.

September 26, 2019

We design a lot of office spaces for clients in growing businesses, and the biggest question is always the decision about how many, if any, private offices are included in the mix.

If you follow trends in office space design (OK, you probably don’t, but I do because it is strangely interesting to this design nerd), you’ll know that there has been a big swing in the thinking about the impact of open offices. For years, the idea was that open offices created spaces for collaboration. You can turn to your coworker and ask a question, or get some feedback on something you’re working on. Great, right?

The challenge has been, well, your coworker can turn to you and ask you a question, too, and that disrupts what you’re doing. There are numerous studies showing how every interruption requires you a few more minutes to get back on track. Add this up over the day, and you lose a lot of productivity.

So, what do you do? What factors play into the private vs. open office discussion?

The Cost of Private Offices

Aside from productivity, the biggest factor in this whole debate is cost. Real estate is expensive. I would debate that the entire reason open office spaces started originally wasn’t about some grand idea of collaboration, it was to get more bodies into one space and also avoid the cost of building walls.

A private office can take up between 60 and 120 square feet (or far more), while a desk in an open office area can be between 30 and 50 square feet. Do the math and you’ll see that you can fit far more people and spend far less on construction if you opt for an open office. Of course, if your employees are crammed in a crowded environment, productivity may drop, which then can impact your revenue.

Legal Requirements for a Private Office

This is one that many people forget: legally, you need an acoustically-isolated room to have Human Resources-type discussions. You’ll also want a spot to have private conversations (do you really want to fire someone in an open office?). This can be done in a conference room, as well, but sometimes it is easier to add this to an existing office.

Cubicles or Semi-Private Workspaces

Office cubicles really came to fame in the ’80s and ’90s as ways to get a private-ish office within an open environment. They were mostly acoustically separated and provided some sense of privacy. Unfortunately, they did not allow for collaboration, and the movie Office Space really hammered home how awful these things were.

That said, conceptually, it is not a bad idea, but it really can’t stand alone. Mixed in with some open collaboration areas, semi-private workspaces (let’s not call them cubicles) can be a reasonable solution depending on the kind of work that your team does.

“Hot Seats”

Hot seats basically take their name from hot bunking, which is a term used on naval vessels where your bunk is shared with someone else, or a few other people, as you work and sleep at staggered times. In an office, this means creating open desks and letting people select whatever desk they want for the day.

This is a great idea for many office environments, but many workers often have things that they need beyond the easy-to-carry pens and a notepad. If this is the case, then I like to advocate for a “home desk” for every employee and then some flexible open seating that can be used for people who want to work together or collaborate that day. We have this set up in our new expanded office and it was one of the best things we have done.

Private Offices as a Reward for Seniority

Should you offer a private office as a reward for seniority? Only you can make this call. I like to advocate for private offices when there is a need for one vs. making it a reward. Does this employee have numerous confidential conversations in person or on the phone? Is there often sensitive information on their screen that can’t be seen by others? In situations like that, it can make a lot of sense.

In our office, I have a private office with a meeting table (when looking at our expanded office plans and our needs, it was apparent that so many conversations, confidential or otherwise, happened with me in them, so combining a conference room with my office made sense). Our human resources and accounting team both work in a private office, as well. Everyone else has a “home desk” and the ability to sit in numerous other spots in the office.

So, how do you make the decision that is right for your company?

In addition to helping you design the aesthetics of your new office, a good design team can help you prepare a survey to ask the right questions of your team to determine what your program needs really are. There isn’t one perfect answer: each company is different. A design office does need more collaboration than an accounting firm, and a non-profit with numerous volunteer staff coming and going will have different needs, as well.

Working with your design team, you can help balance the needs of your team, the costs of your rent and build-out, and the practical requirements of acoustical separation. All the while, you can leave reading all the new thinking on office space design to your design team. Trust me, you have better things to do.

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