Workplace designers and their clients have been embracing open-plan office design for decades. A stack of research data suggests they're either misguided or putting costs first.
By David Walker
In 2013, Richard De Dear came face to face with tens of thousands of people’s feelings about their open-plan offices.
Open plan started more than 50 years ago, but today offices designed along these lines are typically large open spaces filled with desks or long tables, often separated by low dividers. If you’re at a technology start-up, there’s probably a ping-pong table. These open arrangements are necessary in green buildings, but they seem almost compulsory in IT firms, and they’re now the norm in many countries.
Yet what De Dear’s data showed was that the bulk of the people in an open-plan office felt it was ruining their productivity.
De Dear didn’t have an open-plan agenda of any sort. He and colleague Jungsoo Kim had just gained access to a database of 42,000 responses to a “post-occupancy survey”, where a building’s former workers recorded their experiences of working there. De Dear, a world expert on thermal conditions in workplaces, hoped to find that people were unhappy with their office temperatures.
Instead, a quite different result leapt out of the numbers: people in open-plan offices were far less satisfied with their workplace environment than people in enclosed offices with doors.
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Being close to co-workers did have some benefits, the two researchers found – but these were overwhelmed by the increase in noise and the reduction in privacy that comes with open plan. In particular, people found it difficult to work when they could hear other people talking – an unavoidable issue in the open-plan office.
De Dear and Kim wrote up the results, noting that they “categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction”. Their analysis remains the largest study of satisfaction levels with open-plan environments.
The two researchers weren’t all that surprised by what they had found, though. Their results simply matched those from a string of other studies reaching back three decades. Psychiatrists and workplace experts of various kinds had consistently found that open-plan offices cause a stack of problems.
Researcher Vinesh Oommen, from the Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, summarised the results of years of study of open-plan offices in a 2008 meta-study.
Oommen found that: “In 90 per cent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure and a high staff turnover. The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity; there are privacy issues, because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone; and there is a feeling of insecurity.”
In short, the evidence was overwhelmingly that open-plan designs make it harder to work.
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Ignoring the evidence
Workspace designers occasionally acknowledge that workers being pitched into open-plan often don’t like it. INTHEBLACK attended a gathering of architects and project managers, where one practitioner sought advice on “consoling” people faced with a new open-plan design.
Faced with problems like this, designers often claim that workers come to accept and like their new premises over time. Here again, research suggests differently: a study of one group of employees found they disliked their new surroundings more over time.
De Dear and other workspace experts cite two ways to find out whether your office space measures up.
The first is to ask people how happy they are with the places where they work and, secondly, take notice of the answers. That’s what De Dear and Kim did.
Designers who use open-plan elements often have little time for the results that this research throws up. Says environmental psychologist Jacqueline Vischer, co-author of the book The Power of Workspace for People & Business: “I find it amazing that people are still sending out surveys saying ‘do you like your workspace?’ And I’m thinking: What are we actually learning from that? Not very much.”
Vischer would prefer to take a different approach to evaluating workspaces: measuring their productivity directly. When people move offices, there are usually so many changes – fresh paint, new computers, a change in surroundings – that isolating a factor like design is almost impossible. Vischer notes this is hard to do well, and says we’re “moving towards it”.
Throwing light on the subject
Workspace experts already have at least one useful and somewhat famous experiment. Software consultants Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister conducted a series of carefully structured “coding war games” over many years, designed to find out what factors allowed computer programmers to work best.
When they analysed the numbers in the 1980s, they found to their surprise that the biggest factor determining programmers’ success was not the language they chose or their years of education or even their IQ, but simply whether they worked in a private office with a door and natural light.
In other words, the most enduring productivity study says just what the satisfaction studies say: open plan will often slow down work and lessen creativity.
Yet while study after study condemns open plan, business after business continues to proudly claim that their new open layout is making everyone feel energised and dynamic. According to its enthusiasts, it erodes hierarchy, “breaks down barriers to communication” and is essential to collaboration, information-sharing and teamwork, which is the way work is going nowadays
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“It’s emblematic of the changes we have to make,” says the head of one Australian services business that’s transitioning to open plan.
“We didn’t trawl through all of the research that’s available … In the market we are in, everything is team-based.”
In researching this article, INTHEBLACK saw two very distinct types of reactions to open plan: media reports, where executives and office designers proclaimed the virtues of their new open-plan designs; and academic studies that showed unhappy employees and lowered rates of productivity.
Recent research suggests that some of the enthusiasm for open plan stems from a simple misunderstanding within organisations about what their people actually do. While many open-plan enthusiasts talk of collaboration as the road to productivity and innovation, in fact the research shows that the majority of knowledge workers spend most of their time working alone.
As a 2013 study by the design and architecture giant Gensler makes clear – but many open-plan enthusiasts seem not to know – most office workers need to concentrate quite a lot, whether it’s on a spreadsheet or a TV script or a project proposal.
The Gensler study found 2013’s workers spent 54 per cent of their time on tasks requiring deep concentration, up from 48 per cent in 2008. When they weren’t concentrating, they often needed to be on the phone – made difficult when nearby colleagues were guffawing over the latest YouTube hit.
As DeMarco and Lister wrote in their book Peopleware, office design should aim to help many high-performance knowledge workers to reach a state that psychology calls “flow” – an almost meditative condition where people can achieve important leaps towards solving complex problems. It’s the state where you start work, look up and notice that three hours have passed. But it takes time – perhaps 15 minutes on average – to get into this state. DeMarco and Lister suggested that today’s typical noisy office rarely allows people 15 minutes of uninterrupted work.
“We really should be looking at how to rigorously measure the outcomes of the spaces we’re designing.” Dr Donna Wheatley, Warren and Mahoney
In other words, the world is full of places where a highly paid and dedicated programmer or creative artist can spend a full day without ever fully engaging their brain.
Employees seem to understand this, to the point where some take their own steps to shut out the open-plan hubbub. The most common adaptation is headphones – “the new wall”, as start-up denizen Raj C. Udeshi told The New York Times. You can drown out the surrounding clamour by cranking up the volume, though this will harm your long-term hearing and your short-term concentration – music distracts you, lowering your productivity, even as it makes you feel good.
Noise-isolating or noise-cancelling headphones and white noise or seaside sounds can help – and best of all, headphones can act as a virtual “do not disturb” sign to co-workers.
Failure to measure outcomes
How has the workplace design profession managed to largely avoid discussing open-plan’s problems for so long?
Dr Donna Wheatley leads the New Zealand and Australia workplace design team for architecture firm Warren and Mahoney and is part of a design movement that seeks to ground design more in reliable evidence.
She believes that designers are often creating better workspaces but describes as “rudimentary” their understanding of the psychological issues in workspace design. She is also clearly concerned about many of the research findings.
Wheatley says the lack of post-design follow-up is “a gaping hole”.
“We really should be looking at this a lot more; how to rigorously measure the outcomes of the spaces we’re designing …,” she adds.
“For some reason, in the design field, that’s not considered something that we do and, if we do it, it’s probably laughable.”
She places some of the blame on education: designers aren’t trained to diagnose whether their designs are successful. She also notes that when she has tried to pursue follow-up studies herself, clients have often resisted. That’s perhaps understandable; after all, the client can’t dismantle their expensive new building if the occupants don’t like it.
Less space, less cost
What few say, but a fair number of people in the property game believe, is that open plan’s main attraction is cost.
According to Sydney’s Apex Executive Interiors, average floor space per person at a commercial fit-out in that city is down to about 14 square metres. As Wheatley puts it, open plan “just actually requires less floor space per person”. It also provides more flexibility when numbers change and you need to squeeze more bodies onto the same floor. On top of that, the floor-space budget is often set before a designer starts work.
“Often there’s not the opportunity to increase the amount of space,” she notes.
Wheatley is optimistic that designers are starting to bring more psychological data to design, so as to at least explain to clients the problems they might be creating.
“We’ve started looking at how people operate in an open space so we can … push back against a client that might want to go to open space,” she says.
There are other hopeful signs, too. Some businesses, particularly in the finance sector, are now moving to an adaptation of open plan called activity-based working, which at least emphasises the need for people to have private conversations. Activity-based workplaces usually try to cram even more people into a space by abolishing the permanent desk, but they often include booths that give people a better place to have a private conversation without having to take over a meeting room.
It remains to be seen whether this approach is any better founded than the open-plan enthusiasm that it is slowly replacing.
Meanwhile, Facebook is planning a new headquarters in Silicon Valley. It includes what CEO Mark Zuckerberg says will be “the largest open floor plan in the world”.
It will be interesting to see how many “likes” the new workspace receives from its occupants.
Proportion of US employees working in open-plan offices in 2013
Source: International Management Facility Association
Percentage of workers saying working privately is important to them
Source: Steelcase research
Percentage of workers in the same survey saying they had the conditions to work privately
Proportion of extra sick days taken in open-plan offices
Source: Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 2011
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