I remember my first job when I was working in an open-plan office in a London management consultancy and there were times when I could hardly hear myself speak, let alone think!

My boss, however, had his own private office at the end of the corridor with windows on two sides and would call us in to have regular meetings where we were fortunate to be able to close the door and have meaningful conversations.

How I longed for peace and quiet so that I could get on with my work with no disturbance. I often used to get into work early, or stay late, just so that I could concentrate on my ‘to do’ lists with no interruptions. Eventually, I left that firm and at my next job interview I asked if the office was noisy or quiet. Quiet, I was told, and I was happy to accept my new post.

Fast-forward a month, and how I longed for some human interaction! Here in my tiny, grey walled, impersonal office I was faced with a deathly quiet where there was no background hum of voices but only the incessant ticking of the clock. In fact, I can remember that noise to this very day!

So which one was better? Well, in today’s economic climate, many companies are now switching to open-plan offices in an attempt to maximise their office space and reduce costs. But before you decide to introduce either of these designs into your office layout, I think it is best to consider the pros and cons.

The Pros and Cons

So what are the benefits of having an open-plan office? Well, it can certainly increase motivation and team-spirit and open-space offices seem to have more energy within them. Without corridors or glass walls, communication and general office camaraderie can flow easily throughout the office resulting in a happier workforce, better internal communication and a general bonding between colleagues who can easily help one another with a problem without having to open closed doors.

There can also be a saving in furnishing costs and in today’s economic climate, that is an issue that should not be ignored. Without the dividing walls, there is room to house more employees as there is significantly less dead space. An open-plan office may reduce air-conditioning and electric bills and make better use of natural light because there will be fewer internal walls and that light can bring greater energy into the office environment. Also, being able just to see the outside world can add creativity and innovation to one’s work. Sometimes you might also overhear a colleague’s conversation and bring some added value to it with a comment of your own.

But there are negative aspects as well. Increased noise levels can make it harder to concentrate. It has been claimed that open-plan offices may have a higher rate of absenteeism as working in closer proximity to more people, plus the air-conditioning system, can spread coughs, colds and viruses. And, of course, there is the issue of lack of privacy as client phone conversations are no longer private. However, in some respects, this can be overcome by having a ‘quiet’ room that is reserved for confidential discussions or calls but, of course, everyone can see when you go into this room. Multiple conversations, ringing phones, ad-hoc meetings can all lead to noise levels that sometimes make it impossible for you to think straight. Computer screens are also visible to anyone walking past and this can be difficult for employees dealing with sensitive information.

Of course, for small companies, it may not make sense to have anything other than open plan as there may only be a handful of people, but for larger companies, there are both pros and cons to open-plan office space arrangements, as we have just seen.

There will always be benefits and disadvantages to both office space layouts but what is important is that every company should properly research all the facts regarding their own specific requirements. Each organisation is different and Google is very different from, say, Toyota.

So if you do decide to go down the open-plan office route, then maybe consider also implementing an office protocol whereby you are considerate and respectful of your colleagues who are working right next to you.

Now there’s a thought!