Love ’em or hate ’em? Open plan offices are the new normal


When distractions around his desk got to be too much, Patricio “Pat” Murmann stuck a piece of cardboard on top of the low cubicle wall separating him from a co-worker on the other side. Other times he’s used noise-canceling headphones to block out sounds from colleagues eating at their desks.

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“I get tired of listening to tortilla chips crunching,” he said.

As bad as that seems, Murmann says it could be worse. His job as a senior engineering project technician at a Los Angeles aerospace contractor has him out of his desk a lot, so he avoids feeling too closed in. He also works the second shift, from 2:30 to 11 p.m., when fewer people are around.

All things considered, though, “I hate the open office,” he said.

Love them or hate them, open-plan offices are the new workplace normal. From multinational corporations to small-staffed startups, companies are adopting workspaces with fewer private offices and more communal spaces. Today, 68 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association.

The change is intended to foster collaboration and level office hierarchies by putting supervisors within earshot of the teams they manage. Open offices let companies maximize their real estate investment, since they often can accommodate more people than traditional office spaces.

But forward-thinking, collaborative and cost-effective don’t always translate into productive work environments.

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Do Not Disturb, I’m Working

Since companies began shifting to open-plan spaces, employees have complained they can’t focus because of the extra noise, visual stimulation and lack of privacy. They describe hiding out in copy rooms or closets to take phone calls because they need the privacy or don’t want to disturb their workplace neighbors. Studies have shown that people who share open-plan offices are more likely to get sick, and feel less satisfied with work.

Proponents say open office spaces aren’t inherently bad. Ideally, an office’s physical layout helps engage employees to go beyond the day-to-day demands of their work to make the company better, said Kevin Mitchell, an office space consultant with the WESEE Collective in Orange.

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Jed Link, an IFMA spokesman, says people used to think of offices as giant toolboxes that contained the tools a company needed to be productive, including people, computers, office supplies and the like. “Now people have started to see the workplace itself as a tool,” he said.

Poor Implementation, Communication leads to bad rap

For office spaces to be effective tools, companies have to identify initiatives or goals they want to achieve and provide employees with the physical support they need to accomplish them. Open offices get a bad rap because not all companies do this.

Nor do they communicate what they’re doing to employees. “I would go so far as to say one of the more important elements is feedback from the end user,” Link said. “If they’re doing it right, management should be asking if it’s working and making adjustments.”

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Executives at Evisions Inc. said they did both before moving into a new space two years ago. The 18-year-old educational management software company only moved across the street from its previous headquarters in Irvine. Even so, managers kept the 75 headquarters employees affected by the move in the loop about the change. They posted pictures of the new space as it was being built, and hosted a “soft launch” party on the premises to introduce them to the site before moving in. “They were in it through the process,” said Susan Fierro, Evisions human resources manager.

The different between the old and new spaces was night and day, quite literally. The high walls inside its former office space made it so dark Fierro called it “the labyrinth.” In the new office, cubicle walls are only 4 feet high, which allows the area to be flooded with natural light.

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“If you’re standing on one end, you can see to the other end,” said Michael Liwski, Evisions’ vice president of marketing.

To accommodate various ways employees work, the 32,000-square-foot space has some long tables, small conference rooms the company calls “war rooms” where people can work in teams and a game room with couches that employees can use for informal chats.

The main conference room has retractable doors that are opened for all-hands meetings and monthly lunches. The office has Wi-Fi throughout,and since 99 percent of employees use laptops, if they need quiet they can unplug from their desktop docking stations and work in a different area.

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Fierro said Evisions spent more on the interior office space “than ever in the history of the company,” though she declined to give a dollar amount. The return on the investment has been worth it.

“I see it firsthand every day. The product support team gets feedback from customers and engineers hear it and work on it without having to send an email or call a meeting,” she said.

For as much as Murmann grumbles about his current setup, he said it’s better than it had been. Before the company upgraded about five years ago, the office consisted of rows of old metal desks. Today, he and two other employees share a work area that includes their desks and a small conference table. “It’s far better looking than it was,” he said.

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What you can do if open office not going as planned

What can you do if your company’s open-plan office isn’t working for you?

Keep an open mind. Don’t automatically assume that if your company is moving to an open-plan office it will be a bad thing. Understand what’s happening and why.

Follow the rules. Abide by stated office space policies, including directions for where (or where not) to eat, place calls or hold meetings. You can’t complain about co-workers’ bad habits if you’re indulging in your own.

Be part of the solution. If your company is switching to an open-plan office, take part in planning sessions, or ask to join the facilities committee. If that’s not possible, make your concerns known to the company’s facilities manager.

Ask for help. If you’re stuck in a situation that’s not working for you, talk to your boss, or if appropriate, the facilities manager or an HR representative. Explain the problem and offer solutions.

Michelle V. Rafter specializes in covering jobs and employment issues. Send your questions about job hunting, careers or workplace issues to her at or find her on Twitter @MichelleRafter.


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