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Plan B for Open Plan Offices

Scott Alan

We see them everywhere. From big tech companies to small professional service firms, open plan offices have gained broad popularity and have become the trendy choice for work environments across multiple industry sectors

One of the key reasons used to justify the switch to an open office work environment is management’s desire to promote interaction and collaboration, and to enhance work performance. A recent study conducted by two behavioral researchers from Harvard University tracked the interactions of 150 employees from two Fortune 500 companies, both before and after moving into two new open plan offices. The study definitively found that open plan offices have the opposite effect, significantly decreasing interaction. One sensational headline reporting on this study declared open plan offices to be the “dumbest management fad of all time.”

Since we are not going back to private offices or cube farms, we should avoid superficial indictments and take a deeper look at what this study, and other recent revelations about what makes desirable, healthy, productive work environments, tells us about optimal office design.

The Harvard Study

The study, “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration,” (Bernstein, Turban, July 2018) used “sociometric” badges worn around the necks of each subject for three-week periods (approximately three months apart), before and after the office move. The badges were equipped with microphones and infrared and motion sensors to track when people engaged in face-to-face, one-on-one or group conversations, while recording the frequency and duration of interactions. During the observation periods, the researchers also recorded the number of intraoffice email and instant messages sent by subjects. They found that after the move to the open plan office, employees spent 72 percent less time directly interacting with each other, while email communications increased by 56 percent and instant messaging went up by 67 percent. At one of the companies in the study, executives reported a drop in productivity.

What this tells us is that when people feel like everyone is watching and listening, they are less likely to speak openly with coworkers. It also indicates that people need some level of privacy at their desks in order to feel comfortable, and to support focus and concentration on their work. In a completely open plan, we tend to feel vulnerable and are subject to constant visual and auditory distraction. This is true of both extroverts and introverts, but as Susan Cain (author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," 2012, Crown Publishing Group) has documented, this level of constant exposure creates an unhealthy level of stress for introverts.

Solutions

Of course, interaction and collaboration is important at times for many types of work, and there are other benefits to open plan offices. For example, open offices typically afford universal access to daylight and views, which has long been understood to be a significant contributor to health and productivity in the workplace. Jeanne Meister of Future Workplace recently released “The Employee Experience” survey of 1,610 subjects from across North America, and found that access to natural light and views was desired by employees over all other typical office perks. Respondents also said that daylight and views improved their work satisfaction by 73 percent, work performance by 70 percent, organizational commitment by 54 percent and overall happiness and well-being by 78 percent.

We are not going to correct the drawbacks of open plan offices by reverting to the high-walled cubical farms of the Dilbert days, or worse, the antiquated rows of private offices off narrow corridors, so what is the solution? Thankfully, there are mitigations for these distractions, while still capturing many of the benefits. A short partition screen, just tall enough that you can’t see the person sitting next to and across from you, provides a reasonable level of privacy and reduces visual distractions. Similarly, implementing some basic sound absorption and sound masking measures in the office space (like those in the WELL v2 Sound Concept) can cut down on acoustic distractions, making important interactions in the workspace less obtrusive to others engaged in focused work.

The Harvard study points out that in some cases companies are justifying open plan offices because they reduce the required floor area per employee, saving on lease costs. The results reveal that this is a false economy because of the lost productivity and decreased interaction. However, if privacy issues are addressed, a modified open plan still saves space and allows for the inclusion of greater variety in the work environment. Gensler’s “2016 US Workplace Survey” found that the most innovative companies offer their employees twice as much choice over when and where to work, compared to less innovative companies. The choices can include both places of retreat for focused work (very important for introverts) as well as casual meeting and collaboration spaces.

Despite the current popularity among designers, managers and executives, open plan offices are not universally loved by the people that matter most, those who spend 40-plus hours a week in these spaces creating value for the companies they serve. We now have quantitative data to suggest that new approaches to office design are needed that recognize, balance and celebrate the variety of types of work that must be accomplished, and the diverse range of preferences among employees. We can have open and inviting high-performance workplaces, filled with natural light and views, which also respect basic human needs for privacy and comfort.


Alan Scott, FAIA, LEED Fellow, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, WELL AP, CEM, is an architect with 30 years of experience in sustainable building design. He is a senior associate with WSP in Portland, Ore. To learn more, visit http://www.wsp.com/en-US/services/built-ecology and follow Scott on Twitter @alanscott_faia.