Is the tide turning on open-plan offices? New research has found that they can be counterproductive when workplace collaboration is needed.
By Jessica Mudditt
After the much-maligned cubicle came the open-plan office, which was designed as a means of fostering collaboration and information sharing. A bonus was the space it saved, thereby allowing organisations to lease comparatively smaller premises.
While privacy and concentration may have been compromised to an extent, it was widely believed that the benefits outweighed the negatives, and the open-plan office has been a mainstay in workplace design since the 1950s.
However, a recent study by researchers at Harvard University has thrown those benefits into doubt.
According to the researchers, employees who were moved to open-plan offices spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while email and messaging use shot up by 67 per cent.
It was the first study to track the impacts of open-plan offices by measuring the actual interaction that followed, rather than asking subjects to complete a survey. Workers in two private sector organisations were moved into a fully open-plan office environment and biometric sensors and microphones tracked how frequently and in what manner they communicated.
Some have declared the study’s findings as the death-knell for open-plan offices, as research builds on the disadvantages of the design.
Withdrawing into a shell
How could the open-plan office design have backfired so fundamentally?
“Research shows that when employees can’t concentrate, they tend to communicate less. They may even become indifferent to their co-workers,” explains assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond University, Dr Libby Sander, who has carried out extensive research on open-plan offices.
“When people can’t concentrate they become more withdrawn; they can become more hostile and less likely to collaborate.”
Sanders recommends taking a consultative approach to office design.
“Before any new workplace is built, it’s important to consult with employees and consider the type of work that needs to be done, and then to design the environment around them.”
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The open-plan spectrum
It’s important to note that not all open-plan offices are created equal. Those most likely to produce the negative effects cited by the study will lack visual and auditory privacy and offer no alternative work spaces.
“The worst kind of open-plan design is one that ignores the basic rules of what you need to feel comfortable in your workplace,” says creative director at Nexus Designs, Sonia Simpfendorfer.
“This includes being too close to others, not having any sense of your own space and being isolated from a view or some aspect of nature.”
Open-plan offices – how to make them work
She believes that a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to produce an environment that is conducive to wellbeing and productivity. Also, some industries are by nature more inclined to collaboration than others.
“Look at what people need to do their work efficiently and effectively. An open-plan office might be perfect for some but an absolute nightmare for others,” she adds.
Different activity, different space
An increasing number of organisations are introducing alternative spaces for different activities – which doesn’t necessarily mean bringing in the builders for a costly redesign.
Cleverly designed furniture can introduce acoustic privacy, such as high-backed sofas facing one another. Adding space between communal tables can also be effective, as can open-plan zones whereby different teams sit in distinct areas. Other solutions include phone booths where it is possible to make calls in private, and small focused spaces.
“You have to be careful not to put people in horrible little sterile rooms,” warns Simpfendorfer.
“We’ve done some beautiful rooms that are large enough to have a timber desk, with a wall light with a nice ambient glow, glass walls and a door. You can be seen, so you’re not isolated, but you’ve got acoustic separation so you can thrash out a report without being disturbed.”
Flexible work spaces
Amanda Stanaway, principal and regional workplace sector leader for Woods Bagot, says that about 90 per cent of the projects she is involved in are open plan.
However, she too is seeing an increasing demand for agile or flexible work spaces that can incorporate a range of tasks – to the point that she now believes the open-plan office has been superseded.
“People want a workplace to have some buzz and they want to feel connected to each other,” she says.
Headphones – the new office wall?
“No one wants to go to work in a quiet office – or what I call the ‘Death Star’. And yet being able to concentrate is so important. We’d all like to be able flick a switch and be connected when we want, or for it to be quiet when we want. There will always be a tension between the two.”
Stanaway believes, however, that making it necessary for employees to get up and move to different spaces is a plus and not an inconvenience, because it forces workers to be less sedentary.
It is effectively killing two birds with one stone, she says.
Open-plan offices work for your boss but not for you