We deserve better than a polarised debate about cellular v open plan offices

Jacques Tati's Playtime

Jacques Tati’s Playtime

Stimulated by a number of rather unsubtle commercial interests, the ‘in’ workplace discussion seems to have swung from ‘collaboration’ i.e. organisations need more new spaces for formal and informal collaborative interactions, to ‘distraction’ i.e. open plan workplaces are creating a loss of productivity because people whose work requires concentration are impeded by constant interruption. The implication of the latter is that people should keep their ‘cubes’ and open-plan should be avoided at all costs. You can see pretty quickly where the commercial axes are being ground can’t you.

But this rather unsubtle polarisation does give the opportunity for people like me to put a different set of thoughts forward based on experience and research and a genuine desire to help organisations achieve the optimum workplace to maximise personal, team and business performance in an economic fashion. How very sensible.

First a few prejudices ‘outed’. You may be surprised to know that I am not a great fan of ‘Open Plan’ workplaces, just as I’m not a great fan of ‘Cellularised ‘cube farms’. Open plan offices focus predominantly on neat management standardisation, paying scant regard to the different needs for privacy, quiet, confidentiality, team working, collaboration and knowledge sharing that different teams and individuals may have. A sort of one size fits all. Cellular offices, on the other hand provide social insulation so that people hide away unconnected to their fellow travellers. I know, I used to work in one. In truth neither is right. But surprisingly it is possible to design a workplace that achieves an effective and joyous experience for people whilst achieving some economic objectives.

Let’s start with a few blindingly obvious ideas. First, all organisations are an aggregation of human endeavour, collections of people (tribes) that are trying to achieve some beneficial outcome. The only resource that organisations really have are people. People design things, people sell things, people monitor things, people write things, people control things. People, people, people. Nothing else matters as much as the effectiveness and the performance of your people. But surprisingly enough, organisations don’t even measure the degree to which people think their people think they are effective or the impact of their workplaces on effectiveness.
It follows (at least in my world) that the primary objective of those with responsibility for workplace infrastructure (FM, IT, HR etc.) is to give those people the opportunity to deliver their best contribution to the organisation every day regardless of business conditions, the ebb and flow of occupancy and so on.

That is the sole purpose of the workplace, no more, no less. The workplace and all services delivered into it need to be consciously and purposefully designed to robustly deliver a great ‘fault free’ experience to every person in the organisation, every day of their working lives, wherever that workplace may be and whatever circumstances may prevail.
What that means is that in times of financial hardship companies can’t suddenly start trading out the things that are demonstrably helping people to be effective…just because it saves a few pounds. It’s like trading off the wheels on your car because it saves money! In practice it may save money but it means your car doesn’t enable its purpose. If you care about business success in the long term you have to care about the experience your people have at work.

It follows that if we are to design effective experiences we need to undertake good scientific research with the workplace occupiers and base our designs on that research, taking into account the variety of tasks that are performed and the different needs that different groups have, the business drivers …all whilst recognising that the organisation will change tomorrow and the day after and the day after that. Gone is the ‘fashion based’ designer workplace….in comes the evidence based workplace with designers and facilities companies playing their part in taking functional and emotional needs and translating into effective workplace experiences.
But nothing comes free in life and workplaces really do cost a lot of money, real money.

On average here in the UK, we’d see c.£10,000 a desk as a typical workplace cost (including rates, rent, running costs and IT) and in London in some cases you can double this. But we know that on average a typical desk in a typical office is only used for 51% of the time it is available for occupation between the hours of 0900 and 1700. We also know that the capacity of most meeting rooms is on average used 18% because most meeting rooms are oversized and underutilised (and by the way, when surveyed most users think that there are not enough of them!). We also know that most meeting tables in open plan areas are almost never used and that meeting tables in offices are only used at 8% of the time.

So what I’m saying is that there is an awful lot of opportunity to use the space we have in offices in a much more effective way, so that people can have the sorts of spaces and services that they really need to do their best work whilst using things better.

Mobile technology allows us to have new choices about when and where people do things both in and out of the office. New tools like Lync from Microsoft giving cheap and easy to use telephone calling, conference calling, video-conferencing, screen sharing, instant messaging, presence all at your own device (PC, tablet, smartphone etc.) New choices that can free people from the grind of commuting every day (55% of people would like to work up to 2 days a week of given the opportunity) and new choices that will allow people to choose the most effective spaces to work in the offices allowing them to do more better work, work with different people and build new relationships.

So please let’s stop talking about spaces and the commercial drivers and let’s start to consider what we need to do to give people their best day at work in the most economical fashion, liberating them to be great at what they do unencumbered by outdated ideas and poor workplace experiences. Let’s design and measure the effectiveness of ‘work experiences’ so we can stop the dominant factor in workplace design being about a one sided economic argument. We can do much better for our organisations. Our people deserve better.


A Mawson Low ResAndrew Mawson is the managing director of workplace consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates.