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Open or Closed: Which Office Design Works Best for You?

Cornerstone Editors

From adding picnic tables to installing tree houses, companies big and small are paying close attention to office design and the way it impacts how we work. As with many workplace trends, startups are leading the way--tricking out their spaces to resemble a nightclub or a mod coffeehouse or to bring the outdoors inside. This topic has been top of mind for us in recent months as we’ve been going through our own office redesign. How will the design communicate our company culture? What will help our teams get their jobs done in ways they find exciting?

It's no surprise that startups have long been on the cutting-edge of office design. Many are operating under incredibly lean budgets, which forces them to create new ways to do more with less. The payoff, workers at these companies say, is more inspiration, a greater sense of community and more effective collaboration.

Still, some managers and employees are skeptical about breaking with classic office designs, long symbolized by corner offices and partially-secluded cubicles. There's a comfort to having a space to call your own, one that allows you to tune out from the hum of the office and focus on the task at hand.

How do you know if it’s time for an office makeover or to stick with tradition? In the coming months, we’ll show you how we’re deciding to answer those questions. For now, let’s take a look at the main pluses and minuses of both options:

A Home Away From Home

The key feature of open offices is the "roaming desk." In this setup, there are no formal offices and nobody is assigned a seat. Workers instead arrive in the morning, pick a place to sit at a table or in an empty room and either hunker down for the day or hop from one location to another all day long. When done, these employees pick up their laptops and whatever else they brought with them and the space is left empty for the next coworker.

Another component of open offices is communal space--and plenty of it. Whether in the kitchen or areas set up to mimic a living room, these spaces serve as meeting grounds for impromptu conversation and brainstorming sessions. They're also places for relaxation, since workers at companies experimenting with cutting-edge design practically consider the office their second home.

Overall, there is often a sense of equality in an open office space. It's nearly as likely you’d sit next to a recent college graduate as you would the CFO.

On the downside, open offices can come at the price of privacy. Conversations can easily be overheard, or prove distracting to other workers. It's also a difficult setup for employees who thrive on structure--or companies that want control over what visitors, whether clients or vendors, can see or hear.

Rooms with a View, But What Else?

Call this the "Mad Men" model. Closed offices are populated with assigned desks and offices that follow a strict pecking order. The motto here is, a person for every desk (as opposed to, say, a coffee table), and a desk for every person. In this scenario, movement is limited. Hallways can be empty for stretches at a time. Employees at best can hope to run into one another at the coffee machine or in the restroom. Here, the boss sits in the corner office with a view; the intern out front next to the storage closet. This design type works well for companies with clear divisions of power.

One of the main advantages of a closed office is a sense of job security. After all, you have your own desk and your own personal space--a sense of permanence and belonging that can get lost in a more mobile, open environment. Plus, offices with floor-to-ceiling walls and doors help keep distractions to a minimum and guarantee privacy when needed.

The potential cost in the classic office setting is a sense of community. Employees can't easily have the spontaneous discussions that can foster the closer bonds that lead to more effective collaboration.

The setup that works best for your company can depend a lot on the nature of your business. Workers who must collaborate and think creatively (think advertising execs) often thrive in more open settings. Those who are reliant on having a single desk and confidential communications (think lawyers) will fare better in a traditional setting. While the old adage, "If it's not broke, don't fix it," is appropriate when assessing whether to shake up your workplace design, a thorough evaluation of how a reconfiguration of your office might aid workflow and performance is always worthwhile.

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