Open office plans: heaven or hell?

Bridgespan Group-photo by Anton Grassl-Esto

Our post earlier this month focused on Florence Knoll Bassett and her designs for corporate office spaces. However, there has been another spotlight recently on office designs: mainly, the fact that many employees hate open offices. The Chicago Tribune had an article on January 28, 2019, Alison Green wrote about it for Slate on January 21, 2019 and Inc. magazine wrote “It's Official: Open-Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time” on July 16, 2018 which states “. . . a new study from Harvard showed that when employees move from a traditional office to an open plan office, it doesn't cause them to interact more socially or more frequently. . . In other words, even if collaboration were a great idea (it's a questionable notion), open plan offices are the worst possible way to make it happen.”

So where did this concept come from? How did it become so popular? And what do you do if you work in an open office environment and hate it?

Open offices aren’t a new concept. As far back as the 1900s, big rooms with rows of tables or desks were seen as a space-saving strategy that was organized and efficient. As office work expanded over the decades, so did the views about office space. In the 1950s, Quickborner, a German design group, broke up these rows of desks into organic groupings with partitions for privacy—what it called the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape.” Then, in an effort to modernize work environments, the Herman Miller Company came up with the modular “Action Office” system, which included a key element: the cubicle. Interestingly, one of the key people involved with this design went on to later criticize it, stating that while the design allowed for a maximum number of people in a large room, the space was “dehumanizing.” When most of us think of a “cubicle farm,” we would tend to agree.  Note: for great depictions of cubicle farms in the movies, we suggest watching Office Space and/or The Matrix

While meant to free people from the restrictions of cubicles, encourage creativity, learning and collaboration and increase productivity, contemporary open office designs cluster people together in shared space. While this is a cost savings for a company by fitting more people into less space, it means there can be more noise and visual distractions. Many people find it can be difficult to concentrate or make a phone call and it can be especially difficult to have a private conversation.  

In July, 2018, a study was published by Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban from Harvard Business School and Harvard University. They looked at people who changed from individual cubicles to an open office plan, expecting to find that the results supported the theory that open offices encouraged collaboration. However, what they found was the opposite: there was less collaboration after the switch. People who changed to an open office plan spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, 75% more time on instant messenger and 67% more time on email.  Other studies support this, like the one from the University of Sydney, which showed noise was the number one element that bothers employees about open offices. For managers in these open office settings, there are additional complications. If you are manager who needs to give some quick feedback, you either provide it to someone in full earshot of everyone else or you’re calling the person into a conference room (which basically puts everyone on alert). The upshot of all of this dissatisfaction is reflected in lower productivity and higher absentee rates.

So what to do? Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article on January 11, 2018 where they cited how organizations like Facebook and Google have worked to redesign their spaces to include smaller team spaces, private pods, and adjustable furniture.  HOK, a global architectural firm (which was founded in and is headquartered in St. Louis), is part of this evolution to what they call "activity-based work" (ABW) environments, where there are different spaces for different functions (i.e. spaces for working, learning, meeting, socializing, etc.). The HBR article also cites their research which found that the problem with open offices may actually come down to what is called their “place identity,” or how employees feel the space aligns with their sense of belonging and self-image. As a result, communicating the vision and purpose of new office space to employees before they move into the space can be key.

And what can you do if you love your job but don’t enjoy your open office environment?  If you aren’t in a position to make or suggest design changes, headphones are usually the first solution, although if everyone wears them, it can hinder conversation and collaboration.  Inc. magazine makes the point that if employees are going to be using email and messaging to communicate with colleagues, they may as well work from home. You can try asking your boss for this. Or see if you can create a sense of private space for yourself by using plants or a bookshelf.

The Wing co-working space by chiara de rege

If you enjoy open office environments or would like to know more about different types of office design, we have some suggestions from our collection:The Style of Coworking by Alice Davies and Kathryn Tollervey shows off several different styles of coworking spaces that use reclaimed materials, signature furniture pieces, and sustainable practices. You might even find ideas for your own personal workspace here!
New Space – Office II shows off innovative office interiors, including open offices. Packed with color photos and design layouts, this book showcases innovative combinations of space, color, furniture and design.
The Creative Workplace shows off working environments where every detail has been considered to inspire creativity. Combining practicality with creativity, the spaces include different styles of office designs.

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