Eric Paulsen Paulsen: “Supporters tout the ability for collaboration and more social interaction, but I find that argument disingenuous when I tour an open floor plan and see the majority of the employees wearing headphones, tucked away in remote open areas or in small phone booths designed for ‘part-time’ privacy.”

IRVINE, CA—While we can’t call it a backlash, many companies are recognizing that open floor plans limit privacy so they’re looking for creative ways to provide more for their workers, Ten-X Commercial‘s executive managing director—commercial division Eric Paulsen tells We spoke with Paulsen about this latest evolution of office space and how the sector is responding to it. Is there a backlash against open floor plans in the office sector as tenants strive to regain personal space?

Paulsen: “Backlash” is too strong of a word to describe any current criticism of open floor plans. They are still relatively new, so while I believe it does work, there are some companies that originally embraced the open floor plan only to find it does not suit their specific needs. Many have had to make adjustments through sound-absorbing ceilings, white noise, partitions or adding small enclosed areas to allow for more privacy. So, while I am hearing of the successful embrace of the open floor plan, I hear just as many complaints about them as well. If you are a non-collaborative company, in that you don’t have employees working in groups toward a mutual goal, the open-floor-plan space can create too many distractions. Given all of the auditory or visual stimulation, it is almost like multi-tasking while trying to work on your single task.

Supporters tout the ability for collaboration and more social interaction, but I find that argument disingenuous when I tour an open floor plan and see the majority of the employees wearing headphones, tucked away in remote open areas or in small phone booths designed for “part-time” privacy. In many companies, there is a need for privacy at some time during the day that is lost in an open floor plan. For one, separate conversations and other background noise can create a negative perception for clients or contacts on the other end of the phone. It can often sound like a call-center environment, which typically has a negative perception. A good mobile headset comes in handy.

For the building owner, there are both positives and negatives. On the positive side, an open floor plan is usually less expensive than building out private offices. On the negative side, an open floor plan can be abused by tenants that cram more people into the same space, causing parking problems and greater wear and tear. How is the office sector responding to this need for privacy from a design perspective?

Paulsen: I am hearing that we have not perfected the concept yet. Open floor plans haven’t received enough negative publicity to trigger a true backlash or elimination of the concept. In fact, I see it becoming more popular as new development is embracing the open floor plan, and those that are in an open floor plan now are its biggest advocates to others. I regularly get invitations to come tour open office spaces from pleased tenants. It is just a change and people adapt to change at their own pace. There is, however, some pushback from tenants who find out after moving in that while the idea looked great on paper, it doesn’t work as expected for their operation. They end up having to spend their own additional improvement dollars to remedy the situation.

From the design perspective, what I do like is that the open floor plan functions as a kind of blank canvas that can be tailored to specific tenant needs with desks, work stations, phone booths or a handful of smaller offices. Tenants can upsize or downsize more easily and with less expense, a bonus for both landlord and tenant. Tenants’ needs can change, and an open space plan provides that flexibility. It is easier to reuse open space than to find a use for the vacant private office. How are investors viewing open-office floor plans versus more traditional designs?

Paulsen: It is all about the bottom line. Will my building stay leased, continue to generate revenue and not require a lot of tenant improvements or heavy operating costs? As I mentioned before, open space plans are less expensive to build out but, depending upon utility efficiency, can be more expensive to operate. Larger windows, more computers and more people create more heat. When it comes to replacing the old tenant, retrofitting an open space is much easier, as there are reduced demolition, re-wiring, HVAC re-zoning and re-lighting costs. What else should our readers know about personal space returning to the office sector?

Paulsen: Know your tenants and what type of environment will be the most appealing and most productive for their employees. Open floor plans, while anticipated to be the next-gen office space, are not for everyone. Do your build-out right the first time, anticipating that there will be some employees that just can’t talk on the phone without yelling and that people will need some private space throughout the day. While we are social creatures, sometimes we just need to have our space. It comes down to whether office workers can adjust to a more open, collaborative environment or if they will ultimately need more personal space to conduct their business effectively. At the end of the day, we need to have work environments that produce the happiest, most productive and efficient employees.