Are Open Plan Offices Helping Or Harming Our Productivity?

Are Open Plan Offices Helping Or Harming Our Productivity?

For decades, the dominant trend in office space was a bunch of cubicles in the middle surrounded by offices on the perimeter. That was cold, corporate, hierarchical. Now, it’s all about open plan offices—no (or few) cubicles, light-flooded spaces full of long multi-person tables with little storage space, and no personal adornments.

That’s better, right? It depends who you ask. But for many, the combination of auditory noise and so-called “visual noise” (i.e. the distraction of constantly seeing coworkers walk through and gesticulate inside your frame of vision) makes open-plan office culture more distracting than the old model.

“‘Visual noise’ makes an open-plan office more distracting than the old model.”

“Decades ago, someone asked me what the trend in workplace was,” says Louis Schump, an account director and creative director at design firm Rapt Studio, which has designed office spaces for companies like HBO, Dropbox, Vans, and LinkedIn. “Even then, I said, if you’re in an open office, the trend is for closed offices and if you’re in closed offices, the trend is for open offices. And I think that is more or less true today.”

Given our very Goldilocks state of play at the moment, where one model’s too closed and the other’s too exposed, what might a sustainable solution look like? We asked four workplace experts to help us understand how we got here and to paint us a picture of the future.

First of all, everything’s intentional

“We try to get away from trends; our intention is to be timeless,” says Julie Quon, the senior management of design communications at WeWork. And while there are certain similarities between WeWork’s hundreds of global spaces, their research team spends oodles of time analyzing the city culture before entering a new market.

“A good thread for everything is lunch,” Quon says, explaining that New Yorkers don’t take dedicated hour-long lunches, in Amsterdam workers like to eat together, and in Mumbai people like to bring their lunches from home. These kinds of cultural realities shape the layout of each space.

“Teams are 10 to 15 percent more productive when they’re shielded from their supervisors’ view.”

“Before most companies build an office, they do studies. They watch people for weeks. They do testing to determine where the lines of communication need to be,” says Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics. In other words, even if your office layoutlookshaphazard, it’s probable that serious thought has gone into it—even if that thought only reflects some of your personal values and desires.

For instance, if the CEO and the administrative assistant sit next to each other, that’s likely a conscious decision from management to create a non-hierarchical vibe. What it may not account for, however, is that teams are 10 to 15 percent more productive when they’re shielded from their supervisors’ view, according to a Harvard Business School study.

Open plan offices are as much about cost-cutting as they are about style

According to some workplace design experts, the open plan office is a primarily space and money-saving technique masquerading as a style choice. “Before the recession, nobody was talking about changing workplace design to save money,” Lister says.

“It was all about attracting talent, improving work-life balance, and environmental sustainability. Then once the recession came, it was cost, cost, cost, density, density, density: ‘We’ve got to chop space, we gotta squeeze people together, we gotta let some people work remotely.’”

“There are so many definitions of ‘open plan’ that it’s really a bad word to use.”

“There are so many definitions of ‘open plan’ that it’s really a bad word to use,” Lister continues. “But the kinds of transformations that have taken everybody out of offices and out of cubicles and put them in one big room does not work. It’s never been proven to work.” Indeed, an Oxford Economics study commissioned by Plantronics found that 77 percent of employees would prefer to work in a more traditional workspace with high-walled cubicles or offices.

The conversation about office spaces is largely focused around real estate when it should be focused around retention, Lister says: “People cost more than ten times what buildings cost, so anything you can do for those people is going to have a giant impact on your bottom line.”

But there are also underappreciated pros to open spaces

“When we talk about open space plans, it depends on which industry you’re referencing—and even, within that industry, what type of worker profile you’re designing for,” says Amanda Carroll, workplace practice area leader and principal at Gensler, an end-to-end architecture and design firm. Carroll, who oversees a 35-person studio largely focused on designing for the creative class, has created spaces for a variety of companies, including Etsy, Vox Media, and Hudson River Trading.

In the advertising media world, Carroll says, open plans still have real value, as people are not working in individual hired roles. “They’re working and moving as a creative and technical unit,” Carroll says. “The cadence of their day actually falls in its own cycle together, so there’s a lot of value to having a density when they’re working on something that’s focused.” That density would be far harder to achieve in a traditional cubicle-office work environment.

“Open plan offices are also way more flexible—though, again, this is a benefit felt more strongly by the employer than the employee.”

Open plan offices are also way more flexible—though, again, this is a benefit felt more strongly by the employer than the employee. “I tend to work with 30 clients a year, maybe a little more,” Carroll says. “And I’ve yet to meet a single company that’s highly successful in Manhattan that can predict their growth. It’s probably one of the top three challenges that companies have and will continue to have.” Keeping the office open allows teams to more easily reconfigure their spaces based on headcount.

It’s all about “the neighborhood”

While open plan work environments are a new norm, there has been a move to create more enclosed stations and partially-enclosed spaceswithinopen spaces. Indeed, the open plan office should be seen not as one sprawling space, but as a series of “neighborhoods,” which Carroll says should fall somewhere between 25 and 60 people.

Every neighborhood’s layout ideally will reflect the needs of its citizens. For instance, a neighborhood largely comprised of HR professionals, who frequently handle sensitive information, may need more private offices, whereas one largely comprised of sales workers may be more conducive to an open plan. “One size does not fit all,” Carroll says.

“Designing for personality type is far more effective and real than designing for generations.”

Schump just finished designing three offices for a management consulting firm. On average, each consultant team spent four days on the road with their client and worked out of the office one day a week. Schump found that these consultants were largely introverts who needed to work together but craved privacy.

So he created enclosed team rooms for four to six people, with phone booths directly connected to them, at scale. “Designing for personality type is far more effective and real than designing for generations,” he says. “What people want is a range of choices.”

Innovation is happening in unexpected places

“Surprisingly enough, there are a lot of financial and insurance institutions leading the way in office design,” Lister says. “In the wake of the recession, nobody wanted to work for them. If you add to that their vintage spaces that have no flexibility, they were in trouble on the whole talent equation.”

While many of the most innovative office spaces are in the world of tech, Lister, Carroll, and Schump also highlight organizations like financial firms, consultancies, and law firms. In many of these places, hotdesking is replacing standard desks or offices, while, simultaneously if counterintuitively, environments are getting super customizable. These are the buzzwords of the future: Customized. Seamless. Relaxed.

The future is edgy…

Indeed, if you want to see the future, look to The Edge, the Amsterdam office of Deloitte, a global consultancy. While The Edge is often touted as the greenest building in the world, it’s also fully customized and automated—and that experience starts before you’re even in the building.

“These are the future buzzwords: Customized. Seamless. Relaxed.”

“’As you drive to the building, an app starts to point you toward an empty parking space that’s located near where you need to start your day,” Lister says. And while the building is 100 percent unassigned, meaning that everyone “hotels” or “hotdesks,” the app communicates with the sensors nearby when you sit down.

“It knows what your preferences are for lighting, heat, noise, and music. It sets the chair and the desk at the heights that you like them. It puts the right coffee in the coffee machine,” Lister says. “Your app can adjust the lighting with your circadian rhythms. It can tap you when it’s time for lunch.”

WeWork is exploring similar automations, including at their central offices, where staff test WeWork features before they’re implemented. “The goal is to, at some point, have you feel that the space is personalized for you. At the same time, it’s not so evident that it’s there; it just feels natural,” Quon says. “It’s important to find a balance where it doesn’t feel creepy.”

…and in motion.

Meanwhile, companies like IDEO are trying to make driverless car meetings and moveable work trailers aka “Work On Wheels” happen. It looks far-fetched; so did the internet.

Whatever you try, you need to show people how to use it

“If you try to make a change after people have been in closed cubicles for a long time, they’re not going to feel empowered to try it,” Lister says. For instance, pharma giant GSK went to a 100 percent hotdesking model in their Philadelphia office. All of the floors were arranged around a giant atrium, at the bottom of which was a coffee shop and social areas. But, at first, nobody used them.

“Ultimately, we need to create an experience that can’t be outweighed by the comfort and ease of working at home.”

“The problem was they didn’t feel empowered to because, if you’re sitting having coffee, you don’t look like you’re working,” Lister says. “It wasn’t until the senior executives started using those places that people got it. The number one thing about a redesign is that it has to have senior endorsement. They’ve gotta not just talk the talk, but walk the walk.”

At the end of the day, there’s no place like home

“Ultimately, we need to create an experience that can’t be outweighed by the comfort and ease of working at home,” Carroll says. “It’s a challenge because sometimes even the commute to work can get you down. So we’re really thinking deeply through all the little things.”

“The commute is one of the most stressful and risky parts of a person’s day,” Lister agrees, pointing to OSHA research. “You don’t recover from it right away; when you come home and night and when you get in in the morning, you’re still buzzing.”

And while Lister spends her life studying office spaces and has visited as many as anyone on the planet, when asked “What’s your favorite office space that you’ve ever seen?” she responds, without pause: “Home.”