Open-plan offices: how to make them work

70 per cent of US offices have some type of open-plan design and Australian organisations are increasingly following suit.

As office walls have come down in the hope of fostering collaboration and creativity, employee wails have been going up.

The trend to open-plan offices continues despite the complaints of employees, but there are ways to make the design work, according to Gemma Irving, lecturer at the UQ Business School at the University of Queensland.

She says about 70 per cent of US offices have some type of open-plan design and Australian organisations are increasingly following suit.

Irving has good news for those mourning the loss of their privacy. Her research, which involved almost 500 hours of observation and interviews with staff working in different open-plan offices, found that teams generally had positive experiences, and the negative aspects, typically noise and interruptions, can be overcome.

Attend to basic needs in office design

There are some critical factors to the success of activity-based working (ABW) in open-plan designs. With ABW, no employee owns their own workstation and people move between different office spaces depending on the work they are doing.

In shared, agile work environments workers have a hierarchy of needs and the most basic is for wi-fi, says Oliver Sanchez, national project and build lead for Hub Australia, which has co-working spaces in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.

“The moment someone has a bad experience with wi-fi they will say ‘I wish I was back at my desk’. Don’t bother with more cool technology features until you have this sorted,” he advises.

Don’t squeeze desk-to-people ratios too tightly

One desk per person is not always necessary in shared office spaces, as at any one time, some workers may be out of the office with clients, or on leave.

“Each company will have its own sweet spot for the ideal number of desks available per person,” says Sanchez, “but in general I would advise that if you have 100 or less people, have one desk per person, but if you have 1000 employees you could have one desk for every 1.3 people. When ratios are squeezed too tightly, it creates conflict and people get stressed and territorial trying to claim some space.”

Include a range of multi-function areas

The type of areas you need will depend on the performance outcomes you want to encourage. Do you want to nurture individual productivity, teamwork or cross-departmental collaboration?

The more you want to focus on cross-pollination, the more you’ll need open spaces with flexible seating, whereas fixed seating in a closed space will support individual focus and productivity, writes Dr Ben Waber, CEO of people analytics company Humanyze, in the Harvard Business Review.

Sanchez says the first wave of ABW spaces did not cater for introverts or the need for privacy. Modern ABW spaces are much better at this, he says.

At Hub Sydney, members can choose to work in a range of flexible work spaces including phone booths for private calls, or “flexi-focus”, a pod where a person can be completely alone.

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Locate teams with similar needs together

While it’s a nice idea to have people from different divisions or professions rubbing shoulders and breaking down silos, it can also cause conflict if their work styles are very different.

Irving advises managers to locate employees who do similar types of work together: for example, those who are frequently on the phone or talking to colleagues should be in one area, and those who are highly focused and need quiet space in another.

“When employees who do similar work share an open-plan office, they find it easier to empathise with the work requirements of other people,” she says.

In larger offices where hot-desking is the norm and no-one has a permanent desk it’s easy to lose a sense of belonging and collegiality.

Create “neighbourhoods”, Irving suggests, allocating staff an area if not an actual desk. This still allows staff to get to know most of the people around them.

Establish open-plan etiquette

Sharing space will inevitably create tensions as individual preferences, needs and work styles butt up against each other.

Involve staff in developing agreements about how to make the space work for everyone. This could be in the form of a facilitated workshop that addresses issues such as managing noise, interruptions, desk cleanliness and how to signal availability for interaction – wearing headphones is a common “I’m not available” signal – as well as agreements to speak up about unresolved issues.

Related: Are headphones the new office wall?

Good acoustics should be part of the original open-plan design, as lack of sound privacy tops the list of complaints about open-plan offices. Failing that, sound conditioning technology can be installed to help mask penetrating sounds, or headphones donned to create a sound barrier.

Successful shared office spaces

For ABW to be successful, everyone needs to transition from a “me” to “we” mindset, says workspace psychologist Keti Malkoski of property development and design firm Schiavello, who assists clients through workspace change. 

She says the key is to focus on what “we” are gaining. While individual ownership of a workstation is lost, team ownership of a home zone is gained. Individual productivity may be reduced by interruptions from a fellow worker, but this can increase team productivity.

The best way to assure the success of an open-plan office is to do it for the right reason, says Sanchez.

“If a business decides to move from enclosed offices and fixed desks to an open-plan, agile environment, only to save money on floor space, it typically won’t work,” he says.

Read next: Open-plan offices work for your boss, but not for you


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