Belated backlash: is the open-plan office falling from favour?

Posted by Hayley Blacker on 20/03/2015

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For decades, open-plan office space has been the default option for employers looking to maximise employee productivity and savings.

But a growing body of evidence is casting doubt on this received corporate wisdom. Could we finally be seeing the start of a backlash to open-plan office space?

The theory of open-plan office space goes something like this: employees benefit from communal space that promotes collaboration and acts as an incubator for creative ideas. Employers benefit from boosted worker productivity because there’s a sort of collective momentum to keep focused on the tasks in hand. No one wants to be seen not pulling their weight. And less space is required to accommodate workers than would be the case if they were ensconced in cubicles. So employers pay less for more output (in terms of employee performance).


Wrong. Research report after report suggests that open-plan pulls down productivity and hampers creativity. A study in 2013, one of the widest ranging of its type, by the University of Sydney questioned 42,000 US office workers in 303 buildings and concluded that open-plan was disruptive due to ‘uncontrollable noise and loss of privacy’. Moreover, open-plan served to actually discourage communication between workers, putting pay to one of open-plan’s greatest claims which is to facilitate employee interaction.

Importantly, the open-plan workers in the study were outperformed by those based in private offices. This suggests employers may not be getting the return on their property investment they imagined.

My space v our space

Ask in any office where the ‘best desks’ are, and the chances they will be in a corner or in some way shielded from colleagues’ view or out of others’ earshot. These are the desks that offer the least distraction, and give employees most control over how to behave without worrying about upsetting the boss. Does it mean these workers spend all day on Ebay?

No. As numerous work place studies underline, including research into the performance of homeworkers, productivity increases when people have more space to themselves. So do we need to start boxing everyone into rows of work cubes of the sort the US boasted back in the 1980s?

It’s a ‘no’ to that too.

As is so often the case when it comes to work and employee satisfaction, the key issue is choice. There are times when it’s useful to talk to colleagues and times when you need to focus. And there are moments when you just need to feel uncensored (and this could mean a quick check on Ebay as the mind wanders!).

Workplace productivity means giving employees control over how they work and that necessarily calls for variety in the type of work space available, to meet the varying needs of whatever task needs to be done.

Slowly but surely, an increasing number of businesses (Time Warner is one high profile example) are looking away from the traditional equation of one person equals one desk, and more towards the notion of different space for different functions.

In practice, this means employees can change their working environment moving from, for example, a formal meeting zone, to a casual brainstorming area, to a quiet area to concentrate.

Again, the research evidence is there…

Global research firm IPSOS surveyed 10,500 workers worldwide (in 2013) and found that workers who were given more choice, including privacy options, reported greater work satisfaction, and, crucially, more engagement with their colleagues. And, of course, job satisfaction and engagement mean more productivity.

Workplace membership or desk ownership?

In many ways, it is common sense that one space cannot provide for everything one person needs all day, every (work) day given the dynamic demands of modern business. And being static, sat for hours at a time, in one place is hardly going to make for a lively, energetic worker or work place.

In contrast, space delineated by function (rather than desk ownership) can offer a range of ways of working, helping to foster collaboration and concentration. Yet it can still be an economic choice for employers because it can also foster a happier, more productive workforce.

Of course, the introduction of activity or function based work zones means that workers won’t necessarily have a need for their own desk, which on the face of it might seem an issue. We get attached to a specific desk, just as we do a particular chair or coffee cup.

But that’s just a blip. Workers’ focus can, and will, shift to doing the tasks required by their team, and fulfilling their role in the workplace, rather than coming into work in order to sit behind their desk.

How can we be so sure?

As well as creating function based offices for clients, we designed our own office around the ‘functional’ needs of our team. No one at Interaction has their own desk. We have communal space for sharing ideas, cubby-holes (or hideaways) for concentration work, space saving benches for team meetings, and a pool of more standard desks for anyone who needs to jump on one. And we know that at least 20% of us will be out of the office at a site or client visit at any one time. This approach has created cost savings for our business, and, more importantly, has helped create a sense that the office, in the full sense of the word, is everyone’s space.

Think that’s biased? You’re welcome to see for yourself! A visit could offer you a fresh perspective on what it really means to be an ‘open’ office.