3 Alternatives To Open Office Plans (That Will Actually Work)


Despite the fast-spreading invasion of the open office, the reality is that it often fails to deliver. With less privacy, more interruptions, and a dire need to tune out the surrounding environment for better concentration, open offices actually end up bringing about less collaboration, lower productivity, and decreased job performance.

Studies have even shown that employees who worked from open offices had lower job satisfaction. They were also less motivated than those who worked in conventional office settings.


Ironically, removing physical barriers at work seems to have driven people to isolate themselves more instead of collaborating, as was the original intention with open offices.

Defaulting back to traditional office layouts, though, isn’t always the best thing to do; here are three alternative workspace arrangements that will actually have their intended effect.


1. Hub-spoke designs

When Steve Jobs introduced an open office plan at the original Pixar headquarters, he quickly found out it wasn’t working. People were less productive, and work wasn’t getting done at a fast enough pace as it should have been.


Retaining his initial focus on promoting collaboration through office redesigns, Jobs worked with architects to come up with the current Pixar headquarters hub-spoke design. This consisted of:

  • “Hubs”: Central communal spaces for people to come together and collaborate
  • “Spokes”: 5-6 individual office units radiating from the hubs

Marrying the best of both worlds, the new office layout afforded people the privacy they needed for focused work without compromising on the open spaces necessary for teamwork.

The only drawback is that such large-scale office redesigns are often costly and require space that we don’t really have here in tiny Singapore. On the other hand, sticking with open office plans can cost your company more in terms of long-term productivity and performance losses in than a one-off office redesign does.


2. Offering more options for how to work

As far as privacy and collaboration are concerned, traditional office layouts and open offices are often seen to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. People often immediately associate collaboration with open offices and privacy with conventional office designs.


On the contrary, though, offering employees a greater range of options for how they can choose to work at any given time can prove to be much more effective. We know that different people have different preferences for how they want to work. However, an employee can have different workspace needs over a day depending on the range of tasks that they’re expected to complete.

Sometimes, you need intense focus to write up a particularly important report. Other times, you need a soundproofed space to take calls without interrupting your co-workers. Then there are the ideation meetings where you need lots of writing materials and space to facilitate brainstorming and creativity. And, of course, there are the usual six or seven-person meetings for which you need a proper conference room.


According to the Harvard Business Review, giving every employee “many choices of where to sit and how to work every day, and within each day, is key to optimising productivity without sacrificing creativity.


3. Rotate seating arrangements

Encouraging greater collaboration isn’t just about making it easier for people to “collide” into one another in corridors. Fundamentally, it’s about helping people foster deep, meaningful relationships with one another. These offer psychological safety, social support, and a sense of interdependence, all of which are indispensable to better teamwork.


One of the simplest ways to facilitate this is to rotate seating arrangements regularly. HubSpot, for example, switches its employees’ seats around every six to eight months. People from different departments sit next to each other instead of with the same few faces day in day out. This has the added benefit of preventing silo mentalities that develop when people don’t interact enough with other company functions.

Alternatively, you could take a more organic approach by letting employees easily shift their desks as and when they need to. This is especially useful when people are working on multiple projects at once; they’ll need to sit with different people for different projects at different times. For instance, Valve, a gaming company, uses wheeled workstations. People can just roll their desks to wherever they need to sit and whoever they need to sit with.


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