We need to keep a more open mind about open plan office design

BelGroup7Most people will be aware that there has been an historic and enduring debate about whether open plan offices are a good or a bad thing. Past articles whether in the Guardian, Dezeen or across the pond in the Washington Post would typically suggest that they diminish productivity and foster a number of other workplace ills. However introducing open plan design principles into your office is almost certainly a good idea. You really just need to make sure that you provide your employees with a choice of settings that allows them to work somewhere that suits the task in hand whether it’s space for concentration or privacy for confidential conversations in order to make it work. It’s a complex and contentious issue so it’s worth asking where open plan works and where it really doesn’t. If you ask many employees working in open plan offices what is bothering them, they’ll probably tell you two things: that they cannot focus and they have no privacy.

Where open plan fails

According to a number of behavioural scientists we all need some time to feel unobserved and unjudged. Modern open plan offices simply fail to cater to that need. According to Dr Nigel Oseland, “the absence of physical boundaries will increase the likelihood that co-workers and leaders will interfere with the employee discretion and freedom to work. This lack of autonomy may be a stressor.”

It seems that the ability to concentrate is even more impeded. If your job demands a lot of concentration, or learning and remembering new information, your efficiency can drop by as much as ten percent if you are based in a noisy environment. Helena Jahncke, an environmental psychologist used four different studies to examine how noise affects employees. In one test, participants were asked to use several different tables of figures to find a residence built after 1963 that cost more than €57,000 and that had a floor space of less than 63m2. Assignments where you need to remember variables and use them to find the correct information were among the hardest for participants working in a noisy landscape. The costs would be higher for demanding work tasks requiring greater thought. Jahncke’s studies show that people tired more easily and became less motivated in noisy surroundings.

According to one of the latest University of California studies, a typical office worker is interrupted as often as every three minutes. To make matters worse, it takes us up to 23 minutes to be able to return to the task at hand. Does starting to read the same page of a report for the third time sound familiar?

There are numerous studies pointing out other open plan deficiencies from increasing the number of sick days to increasing stress levels, but many of them were conducted with a really poor methodology as Dr Nigel Oseland describes in his article.

Take the famous Danish study by Jan Pejtersen, which found that employees occupying single offices reported almost half the number of sick days (4.9 days) compared to open plan (8.1 days) and multi-person room employees (7.1-8 days). I found the study disappointing as it ignored the seniority of employees, only counted self-reported absenteeism and ignored the way people commute as well as many other factors.

With all these issues in mind it seems that open plan may really may be the devil in disguise, but let’s consider the advantages before we make our minds up.

The benefits of open plan

The most obvious benefit of the open plan office is its cost efficiency. You only need 1/3 of the space to add a workstation in an open plan office in comparison to adding one in a single office. In places like London this translates into a considerable cost saving for a company.

Open plan significantly improves knowledge exchange between employees (see the Knoll study). One thing that immediately starts happening is that employees start experiencing the benefits of ‘constructive eaves-dropping’. People will talk about a problem or a project and suddenly somebody will join in with a good idea or a solution. In our rapidly changing business environment this is a key benefit.

Open plan also supports spontaneous brain storming. Whilst working in a single office you tend to deal with most of your problems alone but in an open plan office it’s very easy to ask somebody for help and quickly exchange ideas. Increased collaboration has significant results. According to one Harvard Business Review study, companies that encourage collaboration by switching from closed-offices to open-offices realise performance increases (speed and accuracy of work) by 440 percent.

Finally according to a number of recent research papers (Gallup, Steelcase, Gensler, Knoll) open plan significantly increases the sense of belonging and team spirit. You feel involved in what people around you are doing and you see their faces more often. Many people feel left out and not ‘in the know’ sitting in a single office.
Not a universal solution

It is very hard to find a solution to guarantee communication and privacy and the ability to focus. Thankfully you don’t have to tear your hair out trying to decide if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. You can have the cake and eat it too.

Creating an office that is tailored to employee needs and provides a menu of settings is always the best solution. We are yet to find a company where the satisfaction level drops after the implementation of agile working also known as activity based working or flexible working.

Open plan is great for building a sense of belonging, allowing quick information exchange and works quite well when you have a routine or medium-focus-intense task at hand. However only by providing spaces for focused work, one on one conversations, and quick meetings will you be able to create a space that combines the benefits of a cellular environment with those of an open plan one whilst removing most of its drawbacks. Besides with the current rent prices in London, it’s hard to expect companies to move away from the open plan office. I hope however that they’ll add some other tools to their workplace box.

Image Courtesy of Area Sq.  


Maciej.MarkowskiMaciej Markowski is associate director in the Workplace Consultancy team at JLL, based in the London office. His background spans within workplace field, working for companies like CBRE and DEGW. He has international experience in corporate workplace, and change issues, advising major corporations on their workplace research, strategy, and change management.