Open plan, or small office?

By Kevan Hall, CEO, Global Integration

I have had a couple of discussions recently with participants on the subject of open plan offices and virtual working. Open plan offices are always unpopular with the people who have been used to working in their own office spaces and are now losing them. They have concerns about noise and lack of privacy, and also some assume it is a reduction in status.

I have had a couple of discussions recently with training participants on the subject of open plan offices and virtual working.
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Open plan offices are always unpopular with the people who have been used to working in their own office spaces and are now losing them. They have concerns about noise and lack of privacy, and some assume it is a reduction in status.
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Open plan offices have become popular in recent decades, largely because they are cheaper (accommodating more people per given amount of space) but also because they were intended to improve communication and break down barriers to cooperation. In my corporate career, I worked for an organization that had always been open so I never knew anything different and it never bothered me. Open plan offices can improve communication if the colleagues you need to work with are in close proximity to you.
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The opposite, however, is true in virtual teams. In virtual teams our colleagues are in different locations and we communicate mainly through technology. It can be distracting to the individual and to immediate colleagues if we are speaking loudly on the telephone or participating in a webinar with remote colleagues. Inevitably, we have no choice but to speak a little louder in this context.
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There are clearly things we can do to improve the quality of audio in the office – ranging from investing in decent headsets to using technologies like white noise to mask ambient sound levels. The fact remains, however, that one of the original rationales for open plan office is not true for virtual team working: an open plan office does not automatically improve cooperation and communication and may even inhibit them further!
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However, given the investment in this form of office and the difficulty and cost in going back to closed offices, it is unlikely that this is going to change. We need to develop the skills to work in this more distracting environment.
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One way of dealing with this level of distraction is to increase the opportunities for working from home. Global Integration’s consultants around the world work from home when they are not at client sites and I am a big fan of this style of working. People are often far more productive then when they work in a busy office, and it can also help with work/life balance.
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So maybe the silver lining, the answer to the communication distraction cloud, could be the opportunity to work from home more regularly?

About the author:

Kevan Hall Kevan Hall is a CEO, author, speaker and trainer in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is the author of "Speed Lead - faster, simpler ways to manage people, projects and teams in complex companies, "Making the Matrix work - how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity", and the "Life in a Matrix" podcasts, videos, cartoons and blog. He is CEO and founder of Global Integration. Company profile: .

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