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Open office or private? A short guide to help your clients decide

Dec 13, 2016

Millenial-office-space-keyimage.jpgAs a commercial real estate broker, you’re sure to encounter questions from clients who are weighing the pros and cons of private offices vs. open office floorplans.

The open office floor plan has gotten a lot of attention lately—both good and bad. Proponents expound its potential for facilitating the free-flowing exchange of ideas, while critics say the open office floor plan leads to distraction and lost productivity and doesn’t really foster as much collaboration as you might think.

Nevertheless, many companies—especially startups and tech companies—continue to embrace the trend. It’s estimated that over 45% of American workers sit in open floor plan spaces. Open office layouts can save companies up to 50% per employee on office space costs, so the rationale is certainly there.

The recent backlash against open office floorplans, once thought to be the future of the American workplace, has been sending business owners’ heads spinning. We’ve created a guide to help you advise your clients on what layout might work best for them, whether it be open, private or a combination of the two styles.

Open offices

What they’re known for: Popularized by companies like Google and Facebook, open offices seat employees in a large space free of cubicles, closed doors or dividers. Employees may each have their own desk, or they might sit at a large communal table. Some companies have even gone as far as to do away with assigned seating and create “bullpen” style workspaces where everyone simply sets up shop wherever they want for the day.

Pros: Collaboration, transparency, cost savings, flexibility, high-energy office dynamic

Imagine this: Your office manager is planning a networking event and chatting with a nearby team member about a dilemma they’re facing: how to show guests a good time while staying under budget. Suddenly, another coworker chimes in. Turns out their cousin owns a restaurant and would be happy to cater at a discount for the publicity. Chances are, this connection wouldn’t have happened in a private setting. This is the ideal open-office interaction.

Cons: Distraction, frustration, lost productivity

Imagine this: Your top coder gets fed up with other employees constantly tapping her on the shoulder to chat despite wearing headphones—the ultimate “I’m busy” symbol—and decides to take another job at a company that doesn’t have an open office layout. Unfortunately, this has often been the reality for the 23% of Americans who report disliking their work environment, according to a report by Steelcase.

Who they’re right for: Open offices can be great for companies that have a tight real estate budget, experience rapid growth/turnover or want to create a culture of collaboration in a high-energy office environment.

Next: How brokers can use coworking spaces to build new relationships 


Private offices/cubicles

What they’re known for: Many think of the private office set-up as the traditional office layout — think law offices or Mad Men. Nearly everyone has a dedicated space where they can work in partial or total privacy. Doors can be shut, conversations can be private and distractions are limited. Often, your seniority or rank at the company is symbolized by the size and location of your office.

Pros: Privacy, lack of distraction, a sense of place for employees

Imagine this: Your employees think of their private spaces as dens of productivity and enjoy getting work done in peace and quiet.

Cons: More expensive, lower energy office atmosphere, hierarchical

Imagine this: You find that your company has a hard time recruiting millennial talent once job candidates tour the office and see that employees work in solitude and office interactions are limited to those that happen at lunch time. Culture can suffer when employees work in seclusion.

Who they’re right for: Companies that can afford more square footage and want to give each employee a quiet space to get work done efficiently. Often companies that require employees to spend a lot of time on the phone or doing “heads down” work like coding will opt for this set-up.

The compromise: hybrid offices

What they’re known for: Hybrid offices are being called the answer to the private office vs. open floor plan dilemma. Rather than choose a side, hybrid offices feature a mix of open seating and private, quiet spaces. Employees can choose the atmosphere that best suits their work style or the type of work they're doing—a private space for a phone calls, bar-style tables in the kitchen for impromptu brain storm sessions.

Pros: Easy to create (just bring in some couches and deem a conference room a “quiet work space”), flexible, collaborative, productive

Imagine this: Your lead designer is looking to source some ideas for an upcoming blog re-design and wants to get input from the team. Rather than set aside time for a formal brainstorm, he walks up to one of the bar-style tables in the kitchen area and asks to chat with a few employees using the tables as standing desks—boom: brainstorm!

Cons: You may need to make some adjustments to your space or purchase some new furniture.

Imagine this: If your business has been strictly traditional in the past, you may want to consult a designer or furniture company for some tips on creating a hybrid space. Companies like Herman Miller and Steelcase actually make furniture designed for this exact purpose.

Who they’re right for: Basically any business. Most companies have accepted that employees are human above all, and need to feel comfortable in their work environment in order to be productive. By creating spaces to suit any person, workstyle or task, businesses can send an inclusive message to staff and optimize overall productivity at the same time.

The debate over whether open offices are here to stay or not will continue to rage, but it’s up to you as a broker to arm yourself with the information to help your clients make the right decision.

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Nell Gable

Written by Nell Gable

Nell Gable is a freelance writer who specializes in creating compelling content for CRE companies and startups.

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