Know what you're getting into before you decide to embrace an open floor plan for your office.

Open floor plans are one of the most popular workplace layouts in the United States. Roughly 70 percent of employers use this layout, according to Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace Report. But does this approach actually benefit your employees? Here's a look at the pros and cons.

What Is an Open Floor Plan?

An open floor plan is when there are no dividing walls between employees in the workspace. Instead of working in cubicles or separate offices, employees are in a large room where everyone can see each other. There are several different ways to set up an open floor office space, from "biophilia" designs incorporating plant life to social-space layouts that encourage interaction and collaboration.

Benefits

First, an open floor plan is a more cost-effective way to set up your office. Barriers like cubicles take up space, which means you can fit fewer employees in the same area. An open space, on the other hand, lets you fit in a smaller office and also makes it easier to expand by simply rearranging desks to accommodate new employees. With cubicles, rearrangement options are more limited and take more effort to implement. And with private offices, you eventually run out of places for new employees.

These layouts also make it easier for employees to meet with each other. It doesn't feel like as much of an interruption to reach out to someone in an open floor plan, compared to knocking on a colleague's closed door. Employees will also have chance encounters, so people from different divisions are more likely to run into each other and collaborate.

Open floor plans can make your office seem busier because the combined energy of your employees is on display. Some employees will thrive off this energy. Plus, when clients and investors visit, it can seem like a lot's going on. You don't get this benefit with a quiet office where everyone's in their own space.

Finally, open spaces make it easier to bring in natural light for all your employees. People won't be blocked off from windows by barriers in the room. You may even be able to save on electricity costs.

Downsides

On the other hand, open floor plans do have some significant downsides. For one, some employees will find it difficult to concentrate in this environment. Noise spreads across the entire room as employees end up hearing each other's conversations — both work-related and not. These layouts don't just allow sound to travel but may also create more distractions in the first place, as they encourage employees to talk to each other more often.

In addition, while the relative lack of privacy that comes with open floor plans can motivate some employees to stay on task, it can unproductively stress other employees out, potentially distracting them from their work. In fact, according to the BBC, employees in open floor plans are 15 percent less productive than employees in traditional work spaces.

And then comes cold season. According to a survey of Swedish office workers, those in an open floor plan office were twice as likely to call in sick. Potentially, the money you save by using less space could be eaten up by the costs of additional sick day usage.

Finding a Solution

If you'd like to use an open floor plan, create quiet, private workspaces where employees can go when they need to focus on a project or deadline. For normal work, they can stay in the open space. This way your employees will interact more often but can have privacy when they need it — and you still benefit from the cost savings of using the open floor plan.

You can also set up rules to create some privacy, even in the open floor area — for example if an employee is wearing headphones, that's a sign they shouldn't be bothered. As a result, employees can create some personal space. Consider issuing noise-canceling headphones, so employees can always get quiet when they need it.

Before making a major change to your office layout, ask your employees whether they have any feedback about what they want, the problems they face and how changing floor plans might address these issues. This will help you avoid a major redesign that only frustrates your workers and diminishes their productivity.

Tags: Employee Engagement