Open Plan vs. Cubicle Farm: Which Will Get You the Best Results

There are merits and demerits to every office design. If you choose to go open plan, you risk facing complaints about noise and distractions, but the design facilitates discussion, and if you choose cubicles or private offices, it hinders easy and useful interaction between staff members, but concentration is optimised.

So what can you do? How can you decide what office interior will get the best results from your staff? All in all, there are four points you should weigh up.

classic office design
Image by Felix O / Flickr

How small is your business?

In the very smallest businesses, staff will typically take on multiple roles through sheer necessity. Even if the fiddly details such as accounting or PR are outsourced, someone needs to manage these things in addition to their ordinary job.

With a flexible workforce, communication is essential, and although Skype and emails are helpful in keeping track of where things are, nothing is as fast and effective as having your staff communicate directly with each other.

It also means that you can casually monitor conversations, instead of having to take dubious steps such as installing monitoring software or reading Skype histories in order to keep on top of what’s going on.

By contrast, for growing businesses, or small-medium sized businesses, this is simply not possible without confusion, miscommunications and interruption. Productivity can grind to a halt – at this point you need to start thinking about separating people out.

Is your business creative?

Simply, most creative businesses do better when the office layout encourages impromptu meetings and unplanned brainstorming sessions. So, if your business is a typically creative endeavour which thrives off collaboration – for example, design, fashion, architecture – then you should consider making the main office space open plan.

However, there are numerous sectors that have a creative aspect to them, though they might not be considered a key part of the “cultural industries”. Internet marketing, publishing and software development, among others, are prime examples of areas where collaborative creativity has a strong root.

Think about whether this aspect of your business would thrive given a space where discussion and teamwork is facilitated – but should that be the whole office, or just a section?

Is distraction an issue?

In some sectors, working in an open space where there’s a lot going on around is not an issue for most – in fact, in artistic industries many find it can help with their creativity and spark new ideas, as there are no obstacles to hamper speaking up or throwing around an idea.

But will the productivity of those who need a quiet space to concentrate decrease because of this?

Generally speaking, any job that involves writing, data entry or equating something will require some solitude for the employee to think. Cubicles can provide a small amount of seclusion and a private space, so for employees that find visual and noise distractions detrimental to their jobs, cubicles can work exceptionally well.

Is a flexible space an option?

There’s no one size fits all option for businesses – not every employee in an architecture firm will function well in an open plan space, and not every writer will enjoy working in a cubicle.

Think about whether the building you occupy has the room to create a flexible working space.

If you decide the majority of your employees require semi-private cubicles in order to concentrate, have you thought about having an informal collaboration space as well? Setting up corners, hallways or separate, easily accessible rooms with comfy chairs and brainstorming facilities, such as a blackboard wall, can mean you manage to facilitate both a creative and productive atmosphere.

The same goes for if you choose an open plan space – consider having quiet “hotdesking” rooms where employees can retreat to if they need space to think.

It’s likely that your small business won’t benefit from a uniform design, but if you consider carefully what the needs of the majority of your employees are and build upon that then you should see a positive turn in productivity and atmosphere.

About the Author: James Duval is a business and tech expert, who takes a particular interest in issues of outsourcing, gadgets, and small business productivity. Currently, he writes for Interaction UK.