Open plan offices – do they really work?

Published / 06/07/2015

Moving to an open plan office can be a painful experience for some individuals but this doesn’t have to be the case. Below we share some of our experiences from working with ‘open plan virgins’ to those who have already managed to turn their collaborative spaces into super-efficient real estate.

Returning home after a long day working with my latest client, (an established formal financial organisation) I decided to reflect on some of my notes I had taken that day.

I turn to my notes from Mike, a senior auditor with over 25 years service at the company. “Offices are required for all staff”.

“Our open plan office, Mike argued, is distracting and kills productivity, and it certainly doesn’t promote collaboration”. However, I believe the problem with the layout of this organisations office isn’t the fact it is mostly open plan, but that they haven’t approached it in the right way. And while I definitely don’t believe that open plan offices magically create divine levels of collaboration, I don’t agree with Mike’s proposition that giving everyone in every company their own private room is a good solution.

Here are a few reasons why I don’t support Mike’s everyone must have an office proposal:

Private offices encourage over use of email

My inbox is the bane of my existence – my work day would be so much faster and less stressful if I didn’t have to field so many emails and instant messages. There are many instances when I would have preferred a quick chat rather than sifting through a chain of emails. If it’s done right, getting rid of physical barriers can help cut down on email overload. For example, when GlaxoSmithKline moved its workers from cubicles and offices to open-plan desking, “email traffic dropped by more than 50%, while decision making accelerated by some 25% because workers were able to meet informally instead of volleying emails from offices,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

Introverts prefer to work inside their own office but don’t feel confident knocking on a colleague’s door

I don’t know about you, but I find it far more intimidating to knock on an office door than to turn to a nearby colleague, and I’m not the only one. Recently when interviewing employees about their workplace I met a self-proclaimed introvert, working as an assistant in a busy IT company, where staff, managers and senior executives all sit together in one open plan space. “I would be so intimidated to get up and go into their office,” she told me. “When they’re sitting right there and walking by my desk all the time, it becomes much, much less intimidating”. I think that’s an important part about being an introvert – you are not as bound to just get up and strut into someone’s office and say I need to meet with you, so open plan is a good environment for someone who might be less bold.”

Open plan offices can foster collaboration – when they are done right

Circa 2 years ago we moved a client into a new open plan environment and since that time we worked with them to track their level of interaction with colleagues.

Jane works in the marketing and communications department for a Local Authority here in the UK. Click here to read Jane’s story.

One of the best things about my job is learning, every day I meet new people with a hope that my team and I can improve they way they work. So, after hearing Mike and Jane’s stories and those of many others – here is what I have learnt about what it takes to create open plan offices that are productive and enjoyable, rather than distracting and annoying.

Diverse spaces are key

Almost every resident in open plan offices that I have spoken to has pointed out the importance of diverse spaces in a workplace. Noise, interruptions, and lack of privacy are definitely a problem in open areas, and not everyone in an office works the same way or does the same work, which is why giving workers many options in a space is key to the success of working in an open plan environment. I often refer to this as a workplace settings toolkit, allowing the creation of different settings and zones –remember, one size never fits all.

Design towards your goals

I regularly hear clients say “we want to be more like Google” – but then I tend to challenge them and say, “is that really what you want? Do you want to be more like Google or do you want to find out how your company identity and ethos can be expressed through physical space?”

A company needs to ask itself: What are our goals? Would an open plan environment really help us achieve them? Whilst more collaboration is a sound statement, more collaboration between specific teams is a goal that you can focus on when planning an office.

Adjacency is critical

Not only is diversity of workspace important – it’s equally important where those diverse workspaces are situated in your office. It’s important that collaborative spaces don’t disrupt people sitting at desks nearby. For example, consider soundproofing breakout rooms and phone booths to help minimise disruption.

The library effect

So many companies work hard to create an open plan environment then opt for high partitioning around each desk. This gives people a false sense of acoustic privacy. By having no partitions you create a library effect where colleagues are more aware of the people around them, they are not going to be as boisterous on the phone, because they can see that there is someone just a couple of feet away that could be disrupted. Bringing the panels down actually makes some offices quieter.

Establish rules

I think we all agree it is great to provide a diverse range of spaces within offices – but unless you are clear with your employees about which spaces are meant for which uses, chaos is bound to ensue.

We recommend that each space is accompanied by a set of clear guidelines about how that facility can be used, and by whom.

Send a signal

Everyone at some point needs to get their head down and not be disturbed. However I find I am far more distracted by electronic interruptions through the day than in-person visits to my desk. For those using IM it is normal to post a do not disturb, therefore why not start doing that in real life too? Would a sign at your desks that read BUSY or AVAILABLE help alleviate interruptions?

If you don’t want to go that far, headphones send a signal too. You don’t have to actually be listening to anything but they are great at sending a do not disturb signal.

I wonder how many people who secretly gripe about noisy colleagues have ever told their neighbour they’re too noisy or interrupt them too often? A little honest communication seems like a less drastic solution to noise and interruptions than moving into a private office and shutting the door.

Get management out of their offices too!

When talking with clients, particularly managers who are used to their own private space I often suggest for them to trial working in the open plan. A recent client agreed that 1-month prior to an office re-organisation that he would work in the open environment for half the day and then spend the other half-day in his office.

It was a great system because it allowed him to understand, first hand, what his employees’ days were like and made the employees believe he understood their workflow problems, too.

Today, post the client’s re-organisation, I understand he now works 90% of the time open plan, with his office available as meeting space for all and quiet space just when he needs it.

So to conclude, working in an open plan environment can have its challenges but if you invest in understanding your employees and their needs an open plan office can certainly create a more productive and pleasant environment for workers.