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Do Open Concept Offices Make for Better Working Environments?

By: George Waggott, founder, and Roberto Fonseca-Velazquez, summer law student, George Waggott Law

One of the biggest workplace trends has been the move from individual office and cubicle-filled offices to open concept workspaces. This is not a new workplace idea. In 2010, a study by the International Facility Management Association showed that 68% of people worked in an office with either no walls or low walls. This number has obviously grown in the past ten plus years These open office spaces were initially intended to increase collaboration, spark creativity and break down the traditional manager-employee seniority barriers. But have they? The reviews are mixed.

There is no doubt that the open office environment is often seen to be much cooler than the office concept of decades past. Companies like Google and Facebook have even pivoted their employee branding to focus on the perks of working at their mega campuses in Silicon Valley. These tech giants are a key reason for the trend of open concept offices, which are no longer confined to tech companies. Some critics of open concept offices argue that the driving force behind designing these spaces are not based on providing a better environment for employees at all, but rather for the investors and stakeholders. Calvin Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, studies how people work and says that the ultimate goal of these workplaces is “not to improve productivity and collaboration, but to signal that the company [is] doing something interesting.” So, although open concept offices might look super cool, who is really benefitting from the design, employees or stakeholders?

If you have worked in an open concept office (and based on the stats, you probably have) the first thing you will have probably noticed when walking through the door for the first time is the large number of people you can see. Now, that might seem obvious from the concept itself, but there is a symbolically powerful force behind this. The open concept office enables executives, employees, clients, and visitors to see how many people are at work and seemingly producing great output. The energy in the room is allegedly contagious and encourages productivity. However, a very small amount of people are likely actually interacting. A 2018 study by Harvard Business School found that open concept offices reduce face-to-face interaction by about 70% and increase email and other electronic messaging by roughly 50%. That might seem like a staggering number, but it needs to be juxtaposed against the fact that the last two decades have seen an increase in workplace collaboration activities by 50% or more. So, putting those two statistics against each other, in general there is more collaboration happening in the world of work but in an open office, this is being facilitated by messaging rather than face-to-face interaction.

Regardless of the actual face-to-face interaction for the purposes of reaching business objectives, there is something to say about the way an open concept workplace fosters a sense of community. Any physical space and the related social environment can dramatically impact human motivation and the ability to be proactive. Workplaces that encourage more frequent and meaningful interaction between employees have been shown to contribute to improved communication and collaboration on tasks, along with higher job satisfaction and social support. Co-working environments can create social environments where a vast amount of different organizations can interact and socialize in the communal kitchens, at community events, and in common areas of the space. The sense of community established in an open concept and modern work environment is seemingly a positive outcome of the move to open concept workspaces.

The obvious downside of not having any walls or barriers is the lack of privacy and the related noise. Depending on an employee’s job function, these two factors can play heavily into the perceived success or failure of an open concept office. Being able to hone in on a task at hand, to really focus on the work without interruption or distraction is an essential foundation for effective work. A related factor is the ability to communicate with co-workers, clients or customers without a noisy environment in the background. Installing phone booths for private conversations or providing employees with noise cancelling headphones are some of the ways organizations are combatting the privacy and noise issues. But is this enough?

In light of the above, it seems as though open concept office spaces are a mixed bag. Ultimately, if the goal is to improve workspaces for the employee as opposed to the stakeholder, organizations need to closely determine the needs of their employees and alter the space accordingly. There is no “one model fits all” in terms of open concept workspaces. If an organization is transitioning to a new, open concept space, a smart way forward is to base the concept on real employee opinion about what is needed to ensure collaboration, community, privacy and noise are all properly addressed.

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