The open plan debate should never be seen as a zero sum game

Personalisation of space is one of the defining features of the open plan debateThe debate on open plan versus enclosed offices rages on, but workplace design is not a such a simple dichotomy. Furthermore, office occupants clearly have different workplace preferences depending on factors like personality, personalisation, flexibility and sense of belonging etc. Herman Miller and Workplace Trends sponsored Workplace Unlimited to conduct a short on-line survey to help unravel some of the more personal factors underlying preferences in the modern office that are often forgotten or ignored.

Just over 700 survey responses were received, equivalent to a response rate of approximately 15 percent, which whilst appearing low is nevertheless good for an unsolicited survey of this nature. Approximately two-thirds (68 percent) of the respondents are based in the UK. One-half consider their role as management and a further one-quarter as technical, including design.

The participants were asked to rate their preference for a number of office solutions. Landscaped offices and agile working were more highly preferred than open plan and, surprisingly, private offices. Home-working was rated fairly high whereas hot-desking is rated low as a preferred option. Open plan and private offices are not the only design options available, and least preferred. Landscaped offices and agile working, which are both types of “open plan”, appear to be more agreeable options.


The status quo

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Those in private offices prefer private offices, whereas those in open plan prefer open plan[/perfectpullquote]

When considering the current primary workplace of the respondents, those in private offices prefer private offices, whereas those in open plan prefer open plan. It therefore appears that those who have not actually experienced open plan are more opposed to it, supporting the often observed “fear of the unknown”. Similarly, home-workers prefer home-working. Furthermore, those with allocated desks have a higher preference for private offices and least prefer home-working, hot-desking and agile working compared to those who already hot-desk.

Preferences were found to differ by personality. Introverts are more in favour of private offices and least prefer open plan, agile working and hot-desking compared to extroverts. Interestingly, there is little difference between introverts and extroverts in the preference for home-working; both groups rate home-working relatively high. There were fewer differences for those more neurotic (nervous, apprehensive) and those less emotionally stable, but the more neurotic dislike hot-desking.

Preferences were found to differ by some socio-demographic factors. Those in the UK rated open and landscaped offices higher than elsewhere. In contrast, Eastern Europeans and North Americans rated open plan offices low and private offices the highest. No significant differences in office preferences were found for tenure or age group. So, previously reported differences in expectations of millennials etc are not supported. However, researchers have a clear high preference for private offices and the lowest preference for open plan, which may influence their studies of open plan and resulting recommendations on office design.

The participants were asked to rate how important they consider 26 different workplace conditions. For example, flexibility over work hours and place of work, having a social workplace, being able to personalise the workspace and not being overheard or overlooked by colleagues. For all the respondents, the most important workplace conditions relate to flexibility. For those currently accommodated in private offices, concentration and windows are also considered important.

Those who rate private offices as their preferred workplace, consider personal desk conditions, like personalisation and privacy, to be most important. In contrast, such personal conditions are negatively correlated with those who have a higher preference for agile working and desk-sharing. For those who prefer landscaped offices and home working, flexibility and connectedness are more important. For those who prefer open plan, connectedness is important and for home-workers flexibility is key. These observed conditions could be used as motivators in workplace change management programmes.

To find out more about the study attend one of the free Herman Miller seminars or the forthcoming Workplace Trends Conference in Copenhagen. The full report is available on the Workplace Unlimited website.

Image: Herman Miller