Debunking the Myth of the Open-plan Office

Having attended OB classes thus far, I particularly noticed that the concept of the open-plan collaborative workspace has been brought up quite often. As an architecture student, at first it was mildly amusing how architecture could somehow be relevant in my business class (which also helped me discover that I can never escape its clutches). Then it occurred to me that it is actually quite interesting and therefore inspired me to discuss something that would relate both disciplines.

Now we are all aware of the trend in which organizations are moving towards- productive and creative workspaces, most notably the open-plan office space intended to foster communication, spark innovation and display transparency. Before any research, what I knew was only as good as assumptions to me. I wanted to learn more as I had some questions of my own. What does the open-plan really mean? Surely the design of successful open-plan workspaces consists of a more complex structure than it sounds. What is the linkage between open-plan spaces and, productivity and creativity? I wanted to be convinced, by understanding the fundamental rationale behind this relationship. And ultimately it begs the question, is the open-plan workspace a fool proof, sure-fire way to increase creativity and productivity in the work place?1Open-plan offices are favoured by companies largely because of economic factors – more employees can be housed in a smaller space. But there are also supposed communication benefits. The idea is that open spaces foster more communication between staff and boost community spirit. Yet, a new study based on a survey of over 42,000 US office workers in 303 office buildings finds no evidence to support this supposition whatsoever. (Jungsoo Kim, and Richard de Dear 2013) The study found that workers in enclosed private offices were the most satisfied with their work space followed by those in shared offices, followed by those in open-plan offices. Distraction by noise and loss of privacy were identified as the major causes of workspace dissatisfaction. Thus we can see how this contradicts the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction. And there are even more studies debunking the myth of the open-plan office.

However, this is not to say that we should entirely dismiss the open-plan workspace altogether. The open-plan workspace has its advantages as well such as ample daylighting, with less walls more natural light infiltrates the building. Undeniably, it provides more opportunities for tacit learning and interactions over enclosed offices. In my opinion, the success of the open-plan office lies in its execution.  Here, we can imagine two distinct types of the open-plan office space. Type A, your typical bond-trading floor like office with long rows of shared desks. Type B, the unconventional sprawling lofty offices of successful organisations such as Google.

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There is a stark comparison between the two and it is not difficult to choose which workspace one would rather be in. Both exhibit the open-plan typology but vary vastly in terms of the use of the space. The design of open-plan offices is not merely to provide a homogeneous space to contain people but an orchestrated blend of spaces encompassing variation(varying degrees of privacy) and stimulation(visually, emotionally and mentally) that flow seamlessly together.

So can there still be a link between the open-plan and creativity and productivity?

Ease of communication and collaboration aside, I think that we can look at the open-plan office as a kind of democratisation of space. With the walls down, everyone enjoys the same views, everyone has access to the same spaces with the same amenities. Even better, if your boss sits two tables away from you, sharing the same workspace with everyone else. (Especially in the modern workplace nowadays, with the mediation of space, we witness the flattening of organizational hierarchy… But I digress and this topic will be kept for another post!) What this does is it empowers the individual by making them feel as important, which consequently encourages, for instance, creative self-efficacy.  It also articulates that the people are part of the company culture and brand reflected in the design of the work space, thus boosting morale and inspiring better productivity levels.

What then, should be considered in the design of work spaces? Is the open-plan foolproof?

While the open-plan remains the choice design for many offices across the globe, it should not be adopted simplistically (meaning long shared desks and cramped aisles). It is important to note that work style influences workspace preference across most industries and organisations. And since work styles within organisations themselves also vary, what should be embedded subtly in the open- plan workspace are conditions that allow for a multitude of work processes that require varying degrees of privacy.  This can be achieved by the use of screens, green walls and furniture placement, etc. With more diversity in the types of spaces around the office, the workspace can better account for the complexities of workplace dynamics. In addition, the open-plan workspace can include portions of spaces intended for activities unique to the culture of the organisation, this can come in the form of a ping-pong table or an idea board. These are just two examples but what I wanted to bring across is that the right kind of space has the ability to stimulate people in the workspace which is essential for the human condition, as one may also observe in the office designs of companies such as Google or Microsoft.

Alexi Marmot, an architect and professor at UCL University College London says office layout shouldn’t be a compromise between private and public space, but one which offers both things to its employees whenever they need them. “We know from what young people are telling us that they prefer much more free-flowing places,” says Marmot. She describes a building she visited in Switzerland which offered workers a choice of sofas, coffee table areas, libraries, pool-style recliner chairs and even “a botanical garden with a few work tables among the plants”.

I would like to end this post with a video of an interesting office design which may be achieved in a not so sizeable office space. Click to view below!

Introducing the Superdesk


El-Zeiny, Rasha Mahmoud Ali. “Interior Design of Workplace and Performance Relationship: Private Sector Corporations in Egypt.” (2013).

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