In one of our recent articles, we explored the ways in which the highly praised “open concept” office might actually be a less conducive work environment than initially thought. But wait. Isn’t that pretty much every startup’s office layout?

Research tells us that open plan offices could be lowering productivity instead of raising it, but your company’s response doesn’t have to be a radical change back to traditional cubicles. If you’re a startup, you probably can’t afford to anyway.

What you should be doing then is identifying the issues that arise with open concepts, determining the root of each problem, and making changes that will develop your open space into an open office.

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Creating an effective open office plan

1. Expand with your team

Keep in mind that the office isn’t just a room for employees to sit in while they work in complete silence. It’s a space for collaboration and discussion. And let’s be real, the casual conversations you have with your colleagues about everyday life and current affairs can make work much less dull. That sort of “inconsequential” chatter might even spark inspiration about new trends and interesting events you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. What may be seen as “noise” isn’t inherently bad at all.

Two businesswomen friends smiling and brainstorming while using
An open office plan enbales coworkers to interact with one another to generate ideas more effectively. Photo: Freepik

However, the problem of excessive background noise tends to arise when too many employees are crammed into an office that, had it not been built with an open plan, wouldn’t have fit that many people.

While an advantage of open office plans is their lower cost in comparison to traditional office layouts (which explains a startup’s attraction to them), companies must ask themselves if it is ultimately cost effective. If the noise and lack of privacy becomes too large an issue, productivity will suffer.

An open layout does facilitate easier in-person communication. However, adequate space also has to be given to those who are simply not involved in certain discussions to focus on their tasks.

So, as your startup grows, make sure you expand your office space to grow with it. Don’t try to fit 10 employees into a space that is only effective for 5 to operate in, even if your open plan office appears to allow for it.

2. Provide some degree of privacy

Companies should ensure employees have some amount of privacy when it comes to their work. It’s not just about fulfilling the fundamental human desire for privacy, it’s also giving every employee’s work a sense of importance.

In one startup I worked in, some employees would become so frustrated with the sheer volume of noise generated by the number of people having separate conversations in the office that they would end up leaving the room with their laptops in an effort to concentrate. Mind you, they didn’t leave for other special rooms either; they would sit outside at publicly available tables and chairs. While that certainly isn’t the most demeaning thing that can happen to an employee, it still speaks of a lack of respect for others’ work.

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A lack of privacy in an open office can result in constant disruption to one’s productivity and, in the long run, low morale at work. Photo: Freepik

Your startup’s office architecture should aim to reflect the importance of everyone’s role. Employees constantly having to choose between leaving the office and trying to work in a disruptive environment are likely to feel their needs in the company disregarded. Morale is bound to suffer if you feel like others’ work always takes precedence over yours. Furthermore, who wants to be the person who’s always isolating themselves from their coworkers? Do it enough and people start thinking you just dislike them.

So aside from individual workspaces, employees in an open plan office need rooms dedicated to common activities, such as conference rooms, meeting rooms, and pantries. Where possible, more than one workspace should be made available for employees to choose to work in. An open office shouldn’t be defined superficially by its lack of walls and barriers, but by open communication among employees who are actually trying to interact with one another and adequate privacy for those who are trying to work without being distracted.

3. Delineate boundaries creatively

Even if you are convinced that the open office plan is a bad idea, it might not be feasible for your company to install new walls in your office. Consider then how strategic desk placement, or maybe the addition of a few large potted plants to divide areas up, could help make your open plan office more purposeful in its openness. For instance, you could purchase cost effective furniture, such as a comfy high-back sofa that could double as an enclosed area for discussions or interviews to take place within (as pictured below).

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Image result for adyen singapore
Financial company Adyen boasts a minimalist and well-divided open office space in Singapore.  Photo: Adyen

Remember: the execution of interior design should take into account traffic flow and aim to delineate individual work spaces!

4. Make it open for everyone

Nothing is more disenchanting about the benefits extolled by your bosses regarding an open layout than knowing that they have their own personal room in the office, while the rest of you are packed like sardines outside. Because what message does that bring across about not only the corporate hierarchy, but the genuine advantages of an open layout?

It’s demoralising for entry-level employees to hot-desk every day while higher-ups inhabit large offices, all while being told it’s “better for collaboration”. Before long, employees will start questioning why the boss isn’t more involved in these collaborations.

So perhaps more companies can take a leaf out of Accenture‘s books. The management consultancy firm’s office spans a total of six floors in Raffles City Tower, but unlike traditional offices, all rooms on all six floors are accessible to every employee regardless of career level. According to Accenture’s workplace lead in Singapore, Ong Sock Hwee, it is ‘100 per cent hot desking’.

Photo: Accenture

Furthermore, there is no fixed segregation of departments, which gives employees an opportunity to build connections across job functions. Different rooms are available for various needs, from meetings to teleconferences, as well as ThinkPods made for individual work. Such a design gives everyone a place to work, whether it be by themselves or with others, and whether they are the boss or an intern.

Photo: Accenture

5. Reduce the noise

Aside from making changes to the office space, it is also necessary to look inward and consider if the people in your office are practising social awareness to maintain an effective workspace. As an employee (or employer) yourself, be mindful of the noise you create and its effects on your colleagues.

If you can take a long phone call elsewhere, do it. If you can tell everyone that 10-minute-long story about the phenomenal durian you had in JB last weekend during your lunch hours instead, do it. Distracting behaviour shouldn’t become a habit in the workplace, after all.

At this point, it should be said that you mustn’t think that being considerate will inevitably end in you having to walk on eggshells at your place of work. It’s about considering others’ needs, reducing your volume and allowing your startup to remain productive.

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You can make it work.

It’s hard to imagine open plan offices phasing out any time soon, given their lower cost and reputation for tending to be more “vibrant” for the working millennial in contrast to traditional office spaces. It is not sufficient, however, for startups to place any old desk and chair in a four-walled room and call it an office. At least, not if they want their employees to be productive in it.

If you’re a startup with an open office plan or if you’re looking to move into such a space in the near future, perhaps now would be a good time to evaluate the efficacy of your work environment and make the necessary changes. Invest in more space, better furniture, or maybe even a professional interior designer. Your employees will love you for it. And maybe hate each other a lot less.

Think these methods don’t make an open office any better? Tell us why at

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