Open offices for all; it is more flexible, adaptable and green

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Screen capture Neo in his cubicle in the Matrix

Look at any magazine and website right now and someone is complaining about the open office, and how terrible and unproductive they are.

In Fast Company, Jason Feifer writes:

Every workspace should contain nothing but offices. Offices for everyone. Offices for the junior associate and the assistant editor, and offices for the vice president and the editor-in-chief. Take those long tables, the ones currently lined with laptops at startups, and give them to an elementary school so children can eat lunch on them. We’ll have to do away with all those adorable communal spaces, but they were always a little demeaning, a little not-quite-Starbucks. We won’t need them now that we all have our own meeting place.

Johnsons' Wax offices, Frank Lloyd Wright/CC BY 2.0

In the Guardian:

Received corporate wisdom maintains that we should all embrace the stimulating power of "co-working" and "hive offices", where we are elbow-to-elbow with our colleagues. Privacy, it is claimed, stifles creativity.

A study from the University of Sydney, published in the December issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology, begs to differ [re benefits of open offices]. Researchers surveyed more than 40,000 office workers in 303 companies worldwide and found that the plus sides of an open-plan office (ideas sharing and camaraderie) are far outweighed by the downsides (distractions and noise pollution).

Offices in Playtime, Jacques Tati/Screen capture

In Business Week, Drake Bennett (a bond trader) writes about the same study:

The authors write: “the open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.” This rings true for me. In fact, when I read it for the first time, I leaned back and loudly announced, to three of my colleagues trying desperately to work, “Hey guys, I just read the most interesting study about workplace distraction.” And then I made them listen to me talk about it for five minutes.

He talks about how "some office designers are talking about “reprivatizing” the office." Dream on. There are a whole lot of good reasons that open offices came about, including the ability to interact, share ideas, have a bit of Marissa Mayerish "serendipity" or google bumps.

These include:


  • The incredible cost of offices. They take up a lot of space, require more complicated ventilation systems and are inflexible.
  • The changes in technology. The office was a function of the telephone and the need to be tied down in one place doing one thing. Now, as we have been saying for years, the office is where you are.
  • The rise of the home office. Really, if you need privacy and think better on your own, why not just stay home?

Bürolandschaft, the first "office landscape"/CC BY 2.0

The fact of the matter is that there are many more issues than whether the office is open or private, but how well it is designed, how dense it is, and what you are supposed to be doing in it. Dr. Nigel Oseland of Workplace Unlimited, a British consultant in the field, writes:

I have witnessed good open plan design resulting in high levels of satisfaction, motivation, performance and staff morale.... I have also observed poor open plan design with dire consequences on staff satisfaction. The contrast in results is because open plan is not a single absolute variable, it is multivariate and should be treated so.

© Steelcase

On the physical side, open plan varies by: occupational density, level of partitioning, height of desk screening, desk size, floor to ceiling heights, layout of the space, floor plate size, workstation clusters, arrangement of primary and secondary circulation routes, ratio of on-floor support spaces (breakout, meeting, refreshment, focus rooms etc), lighting, ventilation system, colour, artwork, branding and so on.

More importantly open plan offices vary by organisational factors such as: role and job function, team size, management style, sector, autonomy and responsibility, work hours, salary and reward, career path and so on. If one aspect of open plan does not work, we cannot generalise that all open plan offices are bad. It is the individual elements of open plan that cause problems not the overarching design concept.

The modern office/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Open offices are more efficient in terms of use of space, more flexible and adaptable. They offer the employee more opportunity to work from home or in teams as required. All of these articles are wishful thinking, the private office is not coming back. In fact, it is probably going the way of the phone booth.

Tags: Work