Variety is key
Don't just ditch the partitions: To be effective, open plans need to offer a range of areas. "In my experience, what needs to happen is a layered approach," says Ferrigan. "There have to be spaces for those people who really need quiet to focus, whether they just find it easier to work or they're more of an introvert. We need to provide spaces where everyone in the company, regardless of personality or role, will feel comfortable."
Ferrigan's team creates "enclaves" for collaborative working but makes sure those spaces don't disrupt people sitting nearby. And if you're going to provide areas for private time (which you should!), don't place them so far away that the trek isn't worth it. "We create adjacencies," says Ferrigan. "You're not going to have to walk more than 10 feet to a phone booth or an enclave."
Your company needs to ask: What are our goals? "More collaboration" is a start, but "more collaboration between the product team and the sales team" is a goal that you can design your office around. "I'll hear clients say, 'We want to be more like Google,' " says Ferrigan. "I tend to challenge them and say, 'Is that really what you want, or do you want to find out how company identity is expressed through physical space?' "
It's not enough to create spaces; you have to enforce boundaries. For some clients, Ferrigan's team lays out rules about how areas can be used. "If you're going to go in [a certain spot] and work," says Ferrigan, "you can't take a call on your phone, you can't talk to anyone. It sounds very corporate and Big Brother to some people, but when you're in this open plan, it is really important to have protocols."
Sometimes managers do need to operate behind closed doors, but letting higher-ups spend their days inside old-fashioned private offices while employees work in the open sends a bad message. It also isolates them from the very benefits open plans promise. "Time and again," says Ferrigan, "we'll hear from executives who've come out of their office and said, 'Wow, I've learned more about my own company in the last three weeks than I did in the past three years.' "
A version of this article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.