open plan office with mixed seating areas

Open Plan Offices Don't Have to Suck: Learn From Past Mistakes

7 minute read
Erika Morphy avatar

Soon after Xpertdoc moved into a new headquarters outside of Montreal, a salesperson received a call from a customer about an issue they were having with the company's product. The customer wanted to tweak the product in an unusual way, explained CMO David Squibb. 

The salesperson was stumped, but a nearby marketing team member was able to help. Still unsatisfied with the answer they provided the client, they summoned the head of the development team.

Working together, “they were able to determine what the customer’s business challenge was and that it was easily adapted with our product,” Squibb told CMSWire.

Xpertdoc uses Agile methodology and was able to roll out the customization and get it to the customer within a matter of weeks, he said.

But it wasn’t just Agile that accounted for the fast turnaround. Squibb also gave credit to an unusual source: the layout of the new Xpertdoc office. 

The new office had a communal layout, with departments strategically situated near complementary departments, in this case, sales next to marketing and product development.

“If we had had a traditional office setting I don’t believe we would have been able to help that customer,” Squibb said.

Open Plan Offices: The Pendulum Swings

If you think this is yet another story about the joys and collaborative benefits of an open floor plan, you would be wrong. 

Xpertdoc realized some of those collaborative benefits with its first open floor plan. But it became clear there was room for improvement. So when the company moved into its new headquarters a few months ago, it took a much more strategic approach to the layout which led to the customer success story above. 

And it seems a number of other companies are also retooling their initial forays into open offices.

Anyone following trends in collaborative office design can be excused for feeling a bit whipsawed. For the past seven or so years the change in what is considered au courant business practice has see-sawed between competing forces. In truth the open office plan has gone through cycles where it was popular, then not, for decades, Cathy Dobrowal, interior design manager at SWBR Architects, told CMSWire.

Pros and Cons of Open Offices

Open office plans rose to prominence over the last decade because it was the preferred space for millennials. Companies, for their part, also gravitated to this model because it meant leasing an overall smaller footprint, which was very welcome during and after the Great Recession. Employees’ room per square foot dropped from roughly 250 to 300 square feet to as little as 185 square feet in the case of some hapless federal government workers.

Then, not surprisingly, office workers began to rebel. Complaints about the open floor model ranged from issues with noise to lack of privacy. 

It is hard to concentrate when your tablemate gabs away. Some jobs are naturally more geared to the phone — such as sales — while others require concentration. And regulations require some functions to ensure a level of privacy, such as positions handling financial and health data, for example.

But none of this has been able to delegitimize the benefits of the open office space. It can help with collaboration, as stories such as Xpertdoc’s show. The alternatives, such as cubicles or small windowless offices, are hardly a hit with employees either. 

Employees appreciate more inviting meeting spaces as well as some of the amenities that come with more modern spaces, such as foosball tables.

Xpertdoc employees playing on a foosball table
Scoff all you like, but amenities like foosball tables are a nice addition for employees (as Xpertdoc team members will testify)Xpertdoc

Collaborative Space 2.0

“Some companies are moving back to the traditional model, but we don’t see a lot of it,” Xpertdoc’s Squibb said. What he is seeing, he says, is companies continuing to embrace the collaborative model — and making tweaks to improve it. 

In Xpertdoc’s case this improvement was a further breakdown of the collaboration and communication silos that had existed in its previous digs. “In our old office our development area was communal and business team was in traditional office space,” he says. “In our new office we went 80 percent communal, including sales and marketing.”

Learning Opportunities

For some companies, improvement means a better understanding of their growth trajectory, according to Dobrowal. “Companies don’t always realize when moving into collaborative space that there will be growth spurts, or departments that will be downsized, when they are planning who sits where,” she said. “You need to look out three to five years and make the best projections of growth you can.”

St. Louis-based World Wide Technology is also on its second iteration of collaborative space. “We opened our previous headquarters about three to four years ago and it provided us a good learning experience in terms of how people work with hoteling (assigning office workers space on a very short-term basis), collaborative areas and conference room technologies,” Joe Berger, a collaboration practice director at the company told CMSWire. So when the company moved, “we knew what to look out for and anticipate.”

The company’s new space increased the number and variety of common areas where employees can interact, he said. It also incorporated video into every one of the 80 conference rooms — yes, 80 — which range from small two-people rooms to large training floors. The video systems are standardized so it is the same from room to room. There is also a cafeteria with couches and tables for open seating. 

“It is a casual setting that is a lot more inviting,” Berger said.

Acknowledging Different Work Needs

World Wide Technology learned from trial and error its first time out in collaborative office space which groups did well sitting next to each other and which didn’t. It placed its professional services group next to the corporate development group this go-around, for instance. It also gave more thought to individuals’ work personas or job roles and what kind of workstations are best suited for that persona, Berger explained.

Companies don’t tend to do that, he said, and it is one reason why he believes there has been a backlash to communal space. “You have to understand the different ways groups and individuals work. Some groups or people aren’t going to be on the phone as much, for example. Some people or job functions are much more collaborative by nature than others."

“It is important to give people options — you need to both enable them to collaborate but also give them private space for when they need it.”

Collaborative Office Strategy: Choice and Variety

Obviously — or it should be — creating a collaborative office requires a lot of planning. And a little bit of introspection as well on the part of the person who is actually making decisions. 

“Some people are very definite about what they want,” said SWBR’s Dobrowal. “Other people are scared of the politics that occurs with downsizing work spaces — that can be overwhelming to people and they shut down.”

It is also important to note that collaborative space comes in many different shapes and sizes, Dobrowal adds. “It can be high-topped tables or a conference room with a screen or simply just open space with a lot of couches and chairs,” she says. In many cases it can be a combination of all of the above.

Indeed, one reason why the open office space developed a bad reputation a few years ago was because there was no balance between the types of spaces provided, said Ricardo Nabholz, senior associate and interior design director at Mancini Duffy.

“People had to come back to the table to have a thoughtful conversation on how to plan and program collaborative spaces, with the operative words being choice and variety,” he told CMSWire.

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