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Open plan offices – do they work?

Open plan offices – do they work?

I was at a networking breakfast in Swindon recently, listening to an interesting presentation on employee engagement.

The tenet of the talk was around dialogue, employee choice, training and development and creating the right working environment.

One thing that was mentioned, however, was slightly irksome. While everything had been about bespoke solutions, treating employees as individuals and so on, it was then declared that, in terms of the workspace, there should be open plan offices in place.

Open plan offices are better?

As well as going against the grain of the presentation, by being prescriptive, it was simply ill-informed. You see, it is easy to believe that open plan is better because it replaces a hierarchical office structure with something far more democratic, open and engaging.

But the evidence for this is, to say the least, mixed. For the most part it is only a certain section of the workforce that are placed in open plan spaces; the senior management still have their offices on the perimeter or another floor.

However, the real problem is that it hasn’t been the solution many hoped for. A variety of research has found that open plan is distracting, disruptive and decreases performance. It can be stressful because of all these things, but also because open plan spaces are often monitored, or at least feel so.

This means that any benefit from an egalitarian system with quick and easy access to team members and an open forum for ideas and knowledge share, is quickly swept aside by feelings of vulnerability and concerns over trust and privacy.

Can open plan work?

This is not to suggest that open plan offices are somehow wrong and never work. When thought out carefully and done with the involvement of people working in the space, when there is the right balance of privacy and collaboration, trust and expectation and freedom and responsibility, then performance and welfare can both be enhanced.

And that is the point isn’t it? No solution is likely to work every time, in every case; each situation needs consideration based on the business, culture and the people involved.

The suggestion should not be that open plan is best; rather it should be to consider the design and layout of office space in terms of type of work, different tasks, acoustics, ergonomics, workflow and employee preferences.

Thus the solution in a given case may be open plan, but that is because it is the best option in a particular scenario, not because someone has dictated it so or simply lacked imagination.

 

Further reading:

Guardian: Open plan offices bad for your health

Insight: 300 year-old idea explains enduring appeal of open plan offices

SteelcaseReport: Engagement and the global workplace