How smart office investments can redeem the open floor plan

Love it or hate it, the open office floor plan is here to stay. Many business owners believe it promotes a more communal workspace while avoiding additional costs that would otherwise go toward cubicles, dividers or expensive site-wide renovations.

However, these opinions can come at a high price. Several legitimate scientific studies conducted on the topic of open floor plans found they can be black holes for productivity in more ways than one. For example, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2013 found employees provided with "enclosed private offices" excelled against those seated in open environments. Though the authors admit workers in an open floor plan possessed the slight advantage of enhanced interaction with coworkers seated around them, the benefits did not outweigh the complications. These employees still had noise pollution and general office distractions to contend with.

But therein lies the conundrum: Most businesses simply can't afford to set each worker up with a corner office, complete with four walls and a door. In fact, regardless of what the aforementioned study uncovered, plenty of businesses function better in a strictly operational sense with open floor plans for unique reasons. That said, even those companies can't endure certain negative issues that proliferate in open areas. How can offices leverage the cost benefits of open floor plans with technology to keep employees motivated and on task?

A little workday solitude might not be such a bad thing.A little workday solitude might not be such a bad thing.

A modicum of privacy
It will be a green day in Hades before business owners give their employees unregulated control of the Internet during the work day, regardless of what Big Brother stereotypes might get lobbed their way. And as well they should. Physical privacy, on the other hand, isn't as scary a notion as businesses might believe it to be. Isolating employees limits distractions and can even give the introverted among them certain license over how they work, like how some people dance better when no one's watching. Or at least believe they do.

So what can companies do to support privacy without breaking the bank? Steve Cody, co-founder of marketing firm Peppercomm, told Inc. frosted glass can work wonders, especially for those with a fishbowl-style bullpen. Though a business might not be able to place a pane of glass between every single employee, it can isolate work areas from the rest of the office. Making tangible distinctions between workstations and shared spaces is the first step to saving an open floor plan from implosion.

Open floor plans can easily distract and stress out employees.Open floor plans can easily distract and stress out employees.

Cutting out the cacophony
We've all been there before. You're racing to meet a deadline, and you've just gotten into the perfect work groove. Nothing can stop you – except your co-worker who wants to tell you about this funny thing his cat did this weekend or this amazing deli he discovered the day before. Wanting to be polite, you take your focus off your work. Yes, your cat is hysterical. Yes, roast beef sandwiches are delicious. And once the co-worker returns to his desk, you've lost your rhythm and productivity plummets.

Though open floor plans can encourage communication, not all communication is created equal. Sometimes, a business's best interest rests with the employee who can tune out the jibber-jabber, buckle down and work. At the same time, things like personal listening devices might give other co-workers the false sense of an employee's availability. To the outside world, it may look like work, but the person behind the headphones could simply be rocking out and checking email, awaiting more pressing work. As a result, collaboration suffers.

Companies should instead devise a color-coded system for letting workers know how busy they are. Bloomberg Business featured a few different cloud-enabled desk-mounted lights or signs that can sync to a person's mobile devices, making it easy for employees to stop small talk without appearing surly. A set of red and green laminated cards can also do the trick.

Office technology industry piece brought to you by Marlin Equipment Finance, a nationwide provider of commercial lending solutions for small and mid-size businesses. Marlin's equipment financing and loan products are offered directly to businesses, and through third party vendor programs, which include manufacturers, distributors, independent dealers and brokers in the security, food services, healthcare, information technology, office technology and telecommunications sectors.