Stephan Graw: Why the best office floor plan may not be the trendiest one Featured

3:21am EDT September 3, 2013
Stephan F. Graw, senior adviser, Sperry Van Ness/Nashville Stephan F. Graw, senior adviser, Sperry Van Ness/Nashville

Many enthusiastic and ambitious employees have worked for years aiming for the prized corner office. Well, with the increasing popularity of the ultra-hip, open-office floor plan, the corner office is fading from existence.

Not only do open floor plans eliminate the corner office, in many cases they diminish productivity and engagement. The Scandinavian Journal of Work Environment and Health found that companies with open-office setups reported 62 percent more employee sick days on average than closed-office layouts. But still, the craze continues.

When I embark on office planning with my clients, seven out of 10 originally envision an open floor plan with sleek modern cubicles. That’s consistent with the International Management Facility Association’s latest study that says 70 percent of American employees work in an open-office floor plan.

Why so popular? A few reasons: 

Hip Factor: Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that headquarters would be moving into the largest open-office floor plan in the world, complete with moveable furniture to enhance collaboration. When huge corporations make moves like this, it sends a message to other business owners and managers that it’s the best option.

Not having to plan for multiple office spaces means architects aren’t restricted and can more easily create a dramatic and hip space. As a result, open floor plans typically end up looking sleeker, which perpetuates their hipness. 

Collaboration: Some studies show the best ideas arise when employees are away from their desks. Other studies point to collaboration inspiring more creativity in the workplace. Office planners have heard the buzz and feel openness stimulates idea exchange and therefore better work. 

Cost: Many business owners are under the impression cubicles cost less than walls. 

When the economy tanked in 2008, the open floor plan’s popularity increase.

Although open floor plans can work well in some companies — it’s all on a case-by-case basis — I usually aim to redirect my clients when they want to jump on the open floor plan train. Here’s why: 

Expense: When negotiating office space, we aim to get our clients’ build-out included in the lease cost — meaning the landlord or seller will pay for office walls. This type of arrangement does not typically include furniture — cubicles/partitions are considered furniture. Yes, you’ll have to purchase desks, but they’re typically more affordable than cubicles and can be re-used if you relocate. 

Open plans aren’t as hip as they seem: The reality is, most employees who work in open floor plan offices are unhappy, that’s according to a Journal of Environment and Behavior study — there’s nothing hip about unhappy employees. Some experts say this could be caused because members without their own office spaces may feel transient, replaceable and undervalued — all contributors to poor company culture and lower retention rates. 

Productivity: Researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic learned that noises like ringing phones, overheard conversations and machines were the biggest inhibitors of employee productivity. These sounds are all more rampant and amplified in an open-office floor plan.

Further, Andy Bailey, head entrepreneurial coach at Petra Coach, says it takes anywhere from eight to 20 minutes to regain focus after an interruption. Without walls and doors, interruptions from coworkers are commonplace. Bailey suggests enabling focus and productivity by giving team members the option to close their doors and hang up a do-not-disturb sign. 

If you’re relocating or redesigning your office space, think twice before you join Zuckerberg with his mega open-floor plan. What’s right for Zuckerberg may not be right for you. You definitely need a space like a conference room where team members can brainstorm and collaborate, but in most cases, to increase efficiency, productivity and employee morale, preserve the corner office and all the offices in between. 

Stephen F. Graw joined Sperry Van Ness/Nashville in 2012 as senior adviser. Prior to his present role, Graw gained six years of commercial real estate experience at Grubb & Ellis where he focused primarily on office and industrial tenant representation. For more information, visit