Imagine a single room with 2800 workers in it. It may seem hard to believe, but that’s exactly what Facebook has created at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Touted as having the largest open floor plan in the world, the 430,000 sq. foot one room, warehouse-like building covered by a 9-acre rooftop park, which opened this year, provides a highly collaborative environment for Facebook’s engineers.

Facebook notes that everyone in the new building sits in the open with desks that can be moved around to accommodate teams coming together for meetings and to work on projects. In addition, the office has break-away spaces with couches and whiteboards to enable employees to work together away from their desks, as well as cafes and micro-kitchens spread throughout.

While the Facebook headquarters takes the open floor plan to the extreme; it represents the shift among businesses large and small to ditch high-walled cubicles and private offices in favor of everyone sitting side by side out in the open or in very-low walled cubes. In “Open Offices Back in Vogue – Thanks to Millennials,” Forbes points out that about 70 percent of U.S. offices have some type of open floor plan, according to the International Facility Management Association.

Open workspace pros and con

The shift to the open-space office environment emerged in the 1990s, writes the Huffington Post, as a result of research that found open work environments fostered community and creativity. Steve Jobs was a big proponent of the concept. When Jobs was planning Pixar’s headquarters in 1999, he had the building arranged around a central atrium to promote unplanned encounters and collaborations between the artists, writers and computer scientists who worked there.

By the late 2000s, the open-space office design was mainstream and not only because of the potential for greater collaboration. The design maximized space and cut costs. The shrinking size of computer workstations also played a role in the movement with less space needed for individual work areas.

While the open-space office environment may make it easier to reach across the aisle to engage a coworker in creative thinking; the design is not without drawbacks, most notably noise and lack of privacy. A survey conducted in Europe by Opinion Matters earlier this year found that 90 percent of office workers are adversely affected by noise and that 55 percent of them have brought at least one noise complaint to the attention of their management. The most common effects of noise in the office environment include lower productivity – four out of five employees consider noise in the office to be distracting – stress and even physical ailments such as headaches.

Background noise also can seriously hinder communication with your small business customer or prospect. Noise is distracting, so your employees may not be giving your customer the degree of attention required. This can lead to misunderstandings and an inability to collect needed information accurately. There’s also the issue of protecting customer information on a computer screen. In a noisy environment, your voice may rise when trying to convey the information on the screen, so that others in range may hear you.

Create an open-space office environment that works for all

To make sure your open-space office environment fosters the collaboration and insures the productivity you desire among your small business team; keep the following tips in mind:

Reduce noise: A good noise etiquette policy is in order that includes guidelines about not using speaker phones, turning down ringtones on cell phones, and not interrupting others when they seem engrossed in their work. Headsets also can help employees cancel out background noise by listening to their own preferred sounds — white noise or music – as long as it’s not too distracting.  (When you are trying to concentrate, it’s best to listen to soft sounding music or very calming sounds. It’s not hard to get into your favorite tunes and burst into song in the middle of the office if you’re not careful.)

Provide choice: In the ideal small business open-space office environment employees should have choice. They should be able to work quietly at their desks and when needed shift to a collaborative setting for creativity. At Plantronics, as part of our Smarter Working initiative, employees have a choice of environments based on their need. In addition to working at a desk (desks are unassigned), we provide areas where casual, comfortable chairs and some collaborative tools like white boards and video conferencing enable teams to meet to work on a task together. For more formal meetings, we have conference rooms equipped with just about every technology necessary to connect with others who are remote.

Consider configurable: Needs change. Purchase desks and shelving units you can configure to support changing work and collaboration needs.

Let in light:  Studies indicate that natural light aids productivity. Closed in spaces block natural light. Keep your open-space area open to natural light; enclose meetings room with glass.

Open-space office environments can work for everyone at your small business as long as you provide options to accommodate the needs of your team; keep down the noise and allow for privacy as well as group engagement when needed.

Webinar on keeping down contact center noise: If your small business has a customer service center, Plantronics is offering a webinar November 12 on “How to reduce distracting background noise in the contact center” from 10 to 11 a.m. PST. Learn more and sign up.