The Coin-Toss Of The Open-Plan
That Is The Question
When it became the hot new trend in office design, open plan layout was supposed to do so much – it would put an end to the internal ‘corner office’ hierarchy of reward through real estate, it would break down cubicle hell and isolation in the workplace, and it would inspire team and cross-team working, building stronger interpersonal relationships between colleagues into the bargain.
Some years on, there’s increasing evidence that it can be enough to drive you stark staring mad with an increased noise floor, the lack of any feeling of confinement and therefore the diminishment of a sense of personal space within the office, leading to a sense of exposure, constant uncomfortable reachability and a lack of professional social boundaries.
New Research into Open Plan Offices
New research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology studied over 40,000 US office workers in 300 office buildings, making it by far the most comprehensive study of the subject. It reached the following conclusion:
'Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced 'ease of interaction' were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.’
Before you go reaching for your dictionary, proxemics is the scientific term for the heebie-jeebies people get when forced out of their personal space comfort zones and into close proximity to Jimmy from Accounts and Alison with The Teeth.
This conclusion does not mean however that open-plan offices can’t work. It just means if you’re going to have them, and if you’re doing that to reap the fabled benefits they were supposed to bring, you’ve got to have them designed by professionals who know what they’re doing. Jeremy Myerson, director of WORKTECH Academy, explained that ‘the reality is that unless the open-plan is well thought-out, with a high degree of segmentation of different tasks and a high degree of choice for the individual, they won’t improve teamwork or collaboration. A simple, low-choice, open-plan environment with an ocean of desks is not good for communication or team-working.’
When planning your office design, get the best, most professional and experienced help you can – work out what is most important to your specific workforce, and whether they’d actually, genuinely benefit from the potential teamwork improvements that can be delivered through open-plan working. If not – don’t do it.
Create task-rented demarcation Zones
Trends are all very well, but if they lose you money and demoralise your staff, they’re not serving your business, your staff, your clients or your bottom line. If so, be sure to establish task-orientated demarcation zones, so you can cluster your teams for periods of time that help them focus on specific goals and tasks, and then allow them the relative respite of getting on with their work without significantly adding to the noise floor and those proxemics issues. Never, but never, accept an idea for your office design without applying it to your specific workforce and the tasks they’ll be undertaking on a day-to-day basis. And even if you think it’s an addition to your business, make sure you get sound advice from an office planner who can deliver the idea in an appropriate way to help your staff, and your business, reap the benefits of your design decisions.