Working open plan means different things to different people. To some, it suggests a high-tech, forward thinking workspace. To others, it exemplifies working-hell, where every moment is spent trying to avoid listening to colleagues and trying to zone out noise. It’s divisive, but as far as big tech companies are concerned, it works.
Apple has recently built an enormous new office space, most of which is open plan and divided by a number of smaller breakout spaces, sofa-rooms, and kitchens. Sometimes open place offices feature grid-lek setups of desks, where every single employee is hemmed in on each side by a clipboard. Is this good for productivity? Or are people starting to reject the open-plan office?
Tim Oldman, is CEO of Leesman - the world’s largest assessor of workplace effectiveness. Leesman have assessed over 250,000 employees worldwide, in 1,991 workplaces, and found that "as more organisations move to open plan environments, there is a danger that they are bringing productivity inhibitors into their environments rather than creating a higher performance workplace. It may be more cost efficient but at what cost? When asked whether the workplace design enables them to work productively, 79 percent of those in private offices agree. Then when placed in open plan environments, on a fixed desk, this drops to 52.6 percent (below our average of 57.1 percent)."
Clearly something is wrong with the current setup. But is the open-plan office just about cutting costs?
Oldman’s research makes it look like open-plan offices have had their day. Yet, he says, there is one key difference. 75 per cent of the employees in flexible open plan offices (which allow employees to leave their desks and work in other spaces) agree that the flexible office set up allows them to work productively.
So is anyone actually giving up on an open-plan office? The answer so far is, not really. Plenty of companies are starting to introduce separate working spaces within open plan office spaces. These might include a couch with a softer lighting arrangement, a working kitchen, or simply the flexibility to leave the office and work in a cafe.
A study conducted by Rachel Morrison, a senior lecturer in the business school at Auckland University of Technology, found that "Shared environments did not improve coworker friendships and, in addition, were associated with perceptions of less supportive supervision. The finding may be because employees who receive either too much monitoring or only informal supervision, perceive their supervision to be of lower quality than those who have dedicated supervision meetings."
Morrison’s article doesn’t suggest complete isolation is the best, either. She recommends that some interaction is essential for activity-based work to succeed. However she argues that "too much open plan and the distractions will outweigh any potential collaborative benefits. Too little and the benefits (collaboration, creativity, and teamwork) are not evident."
Tim explains that the key to creating an open plan isn’t just to remove walls and hope everything will be alright. "The key is giving people choice, variety, and flexibility."
Examples of how to improve this, include reducing the level of office noise. "General satisfaction levels concerning office noise is as low as 30.7 per cent - this rises to 55 per cent for organisations with private seating and drops to 27.4 per cent when in an open plan office. We find those that report a dissatisfaction with noise are much more likely to report that their workplace design does not support productivity.
"If we move to open plan environments and offer no means of escaping the noise then you’re are introducing a productivity toxin into the mix."
In addition, Tim found that seven in 10 employees are perhaps irritated by people walking past their workstation. The way to manage this is by seating desks away from major thoroughfares, and instead place cabinets or cupboards as a buffer.
Open plan is cost-effective for offices. It’s an opportunity to get as many people into a room as possible, without spending money on upgrading into another building for example. This means it’s probably here to stay, so if you’re in an open-plan office, you should invest in some noise cancelling headphones. if you’re in charge, and you have a choice whether to go open-plan, flex-open plan, or private offices, you’ve read here what’s the most productive.