Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 5. Open-Plan is Not Always From Hell

This last post in the series ‘ Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices‘ will focus on the issue of workplace configuration, more specifically it will look at open-plan offices.

The open-plan office has taken a battering recently both in the media with headlines such as “Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell” (Guardian, 18 Nov 2013), but also in academic circles with a recently published paper by Kim and De Dear (2013) in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, where it was argued that open layouts fared considerably worse than enclosed ones when it came to occupant satisfaction. Most notably, open-plan offices caused dissatisfaction regarding noise levels, sound privacy and visual privacy (see graph below) and the benefits from an apparent ease of interaction in open layouts were smaller than the above mentioned disadvantages (a good summary of the research is provided by this Harvard Business Review blog).

Percentage of ratings of dissatisfaction in offices separated by office type as reported by Kim & De Dear (Source: HBR)

While last week’s blog showed similar evidence to the Kim and De Dear paper in establishing that single offices may be easier for interacting with colleagues than larger shared workplaces, I really want to make a case today that despite all the bad press and despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence open-plan is not always from hell.

What research suggests is that open-plan offices can actually work really well if two important criteria are met:

  1. The office layout has to suit the work processes and organisational cultures of the occupants. While this sounds so obvious, the reality is sometimes far from it. For instance a radio station relies on quick and efficient flow of information. News and gossip is their main currency. I have observed a radio station in the UK with an interactivity rate of 41% (see more below), which means almost half of all staff are talking simultaneously. Open-plan suits this coordination-intensive business well. Similarly, trading rooms require an open-plan layout, since they act as ‘seismographs’ (as argued by Tsen 2011). Visual and acoustic transparency are essential for traders to gain an awareness of what is happening in other markets, and staff are reported to use for instance a raise in noise levels from a particular area as an indicator of turbulence in financial markets. In contrast, enclosed offices work particularly well for research. Academics for instance need to concentrate for reading and writing tasks, but also require privacy to deal with student issues. The work processes of academics have been rather nicely coined as ‘entrepreneurial’ in nature by my colleague Sheep Dalton in a recent conversation.
  2. The second criterion to be met is that the detailed office configuration has to be carefully considered and well designed. Again, this sounds obvious, but as in many things, the devil is in the detail. Open-plan offices vary significantly regarding a whole series of parameters, for instance size of the floor plate, size of immediately visible area around workstations, density of the workspace, proximity to other sources of noise, e.g. heavily used circulation spaces or kitchens. To generally judge all open-plan offices as an unsuitable and inferior form of spatial organisation of work means to ignore the importance of configuration.

So how does this relate to the research findings of Kim and De Dear?

By looking at a large sample of more than 40.000 occupant satisfaction ratings from the Post-Occupancy database of the Center of the Built Environment at the University of California Berkeley, the authors are able to identify trends and rigorously test results. However, this bigger picture perspective may actually stand in the way of understanding what is really happening in the workplace. Both criteria mentioned above are not considered well enough in the analysis, I would argue. Firstly, by failing to differentiate by industry and control for the standard work processes of office workers, results could be misleading. It might well be the case that a lot of dissatisfaction in offices stemmed from a mismatch between processes / cultures and office configuration. From conversations with colleagues and own experience I know too well that the trend in academia for instance is to provide open-plan offices rather than enclosed offices, which then obviously would result in low levels of satisfaction. This doesn’t mean that open-plan is bad per se, it just means that it is inappropriate for the type of work that academics do. Secondly, due to the statistical nature of the study it is unable to consider the detailed configuration of open-plan offices. What becomes immediately obvious, is that only 7% of the sample of Kim & De Dear is an open-plan environment without partitions, whereas 38% are high partition cubicles and another 22% low partition cubicles. Cubicles are well known as problematic for combining the isolation of cellular space with the noise levels of open space (and it is certainly no surprise that the US American cubicle culture is made fun of by comic strips such as Dilbert). By the way, the differences between cubicles and open-plan are reflected in the satisfaction rating as reported by Kim & De Dear, since cubicles were considered worse than open-plan. While the authors strictly differentiate their results by these types, the media has not always reflected on this difference (as for instance in this coverage in Management Issues). Still what is missing even from Kim & De Dear’s analysis is an appreciation of the differences in open-plan layouts.

Essentially open-plan is unequal to open-plan. Let me show you some examples of different open-plan environments that make it immediately obvious how different each and every one of them is, creating different affordances for interaction, privacy and noise.

The following series of images shows various open-plan offices, which differ significantly in size, degree of enclosure, shape of the floor plate and overall configuration of the workspace. A heat diagram following a Space Syntax analysis shows the degree of accessibility by highlighting areas of high integration (i.e. likely to be busy) in warm colours (red, orange, yellow) and areas of high segregation (i.e. likely to be quiet) in cool colours (green, turquoise, blue).

Figure 1 below shows the open-plan office of a media company (that I have studied as part of my PhD ‘The Space-Organisation Relationship‘ and which is also featured in a paper I wrote on ‘Creativity as a Social and Spatial Process‘). Its vast and very dense open-plan layout accommodates more than 700 people on a single floor plate. While staff (who were previously located in 4 different buildings) indeed reported increased levels of interaction, noise emanating from the busy corridor was a real issue. Overall satisfaction levels were good, however, staff complained about the ‘battery hen’ style of the workplace (which makes me think that satisfaction ratings do not necessarily tell the full story).

Figure 1: Dense open-plan office of a London-based media corporation

Figure 1: Dense open-plan office of a London-based media corporation

The typical floor plan of another London-based media agency is shown below in figure 2. The shape of the floor plate naturally defines different areas, which on the one hand contributes to team spirit and a feeling of identity for the departments, yet on the other hand contributes to a lack of collaboration beyond the boundaries of teams. Facilities like breakout areas and the open kitchen bar are placed near naturally integrated areas, increasing the buzz and liveliness of those places. Concentrating and getting work done might be difficult if your desk happens to be near one of those areas.

Figure 2: Typical floor of a London Media Agency with naturally occurring separations and team areas

Figure 2: Typical floor of a London Media Agency with naturally occurring separations and team areas

The layout of a UK based radio station is shown in figure 3 (this case was featured in the poster and short paper presentation ‘Effective Workplaces’ at the 6th Space Syntax Symposium in Istanbul). The office is much smaller than the previous examples and offers a workspace, where everyone can see everyone else. The broadcasting studios are next to the main circulation space and close to the integration core of the building. This makes the whole space very interactive (resulting in the high interactivity figure of 41% mentioned above). Staff were very happy in the new office, which was designed by Spacelab Architects.

Figure 3: Interactive workspace of a UK Radio Station

Figure 3: Interactive workspace of a UK Radio Station

As last example I want to show an office space, which was featured on Design Milk recently. The workspace of PR Agency Bicom was designed by Interior Designers De Lessard in an approach to accommodate the diversity of working styles and personalities of the small and innovative agency. It provides a huge range of different work settings, from enclosed offices to open plan, from visually integrated to rather segregated. The design plays with the ideas of openness and enclosure in a village-like configuration with small huts. What I find interesting is that this is an open-plan environment, too, but one that seems to react to people’s ideas of togetherness and solitude, of privacy (both visual and accoustic), without giving up the idea of a creative open-plan solution. Of course I haven’t researched this in detail and you never know what you might find once you do, but my hypothesis would be that the occupants are indeed satisfied with their workspace.

PR Agency: mix of enclosed and open-plan offices providing both affordances for integration and exchange, but also a feeling of seclusion

Figure 4: Mix of enclosed and open-plan offices in a PR Agency provides both affordances for integration and exchange, but also a feeling of seclusion

In summary, open-plan is not always from hell. It can work well if it suits the requirements of the work processes of an organisation and is well designed, taking care to address and balance the need for communication and concentration, solitary and collaborative tasks, for social exchange and contemplation. I know a lot of places are simply not like that, but that doesn’t mean the concept is flawed per se.


This is part of the blog series ‘Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices’.
Part 1: The Office Is Not Dead
Part 2: Electronic Contact Mirrors Face-To-Face Contact
Part 3: Movement Helps You Think

Part 4: Cellular Space Is Not the End of Communication

7 thoughts on “Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 5. Open-Plan is Not Always From Hell

  1. A good blog about design. An aspect that needs to go along with that is about different personality types because different people find it more or less difficult to work in open plan. I could say more about this but this is probably sufficient to flag up that the office lay-out needs to also take personality into account so that productivity is maximised. Stressed individuals do not work effectively.

      • Thank you for the link Kerstin. I’ve just read it and it fits with my training in Process Communication which is about the different types of personality we have inside us. Those who have Thinker or Persister as their base prefer to be with one other person; those whose base is Imaginer prefer to be alone; those whose base is Promoter or Rebel prefer to be on the fringe of groups whilst those with a Harmoniser base prefer to be in groups. I am currently working with an organisation which largely consists of scientists and who are re-organising their internal lay-out. They are struggling because many of them are have Imaginer as their base and prefer to work at home or at least not in an open plan office. (I have sent them your blog). The leadership training I have done with them covered a lot of ground about getting the best from people and themselves and their environment. The difficulty has been that the edict for open-plan has come from on high. This is the same for an environmental organisation that has been told that they need to “hot-desk” which is causing problems for them as well. Of course different types of work do tend to attract people with different personality types. Once we learn about this and offices take this into consideration we should get increased productivity.
        Well, I am going on a bit but I do find this very interesting. Your blog was shared by someone who came on my open workshop on Organisational Transactional Analysis last week and I have since circulated it. I will take the time to read your other blogs at some point. It’s great because those of us in the psychology and organisational development fields can get to meet people like you, which without the internet would be less likely.

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