Commentary: Open-plan offices are not inherently bad – you’re probably just using them wrong
What might the set-up of an ideal workplace environment look like today? Alexander Brem shares findings of his experiment.
ODENSE, Denmark: For decades the trend among workplaces has seen employees moving out of individual offices and into open-plan spaces. This has not always been successful, with the open-plan approach receiving significant criticism.
The key issues are distraction and noise, which apparently leads to uncooperative behaviour, distrust and negative personal relationships, and the lack of privacy and sense of being universally observed.
Now that the internet connectivity is available almost everywhere and thus allows much more flexible working, the question arises: What might the set-up of an ideal workplace environment look like today?
YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE AN OPEN-PLAN OFFICE
One response to the problems of open-plan spaces is simply to stop using them, as IKEA has done recently, structuring new spaces using its own taste for furniture design.
But to be honest, this isn’t different from a traditional workplace that uses the office cubicle.
A variety of approaches aimed at designing better open-plan spaces include using private offices surrounding a hub of a common area or purchasing movable barriers so people can create private space as needed.
Others try to create larger offices with two or three work areas, install cubicles with cathedral ceilings, skylights and tall windows, or introduce a work-from-home policy – while renting space for group meetings as required.
AN EXPERIMENT WITH OPEN-PLAN SPACES
We had the opportunity to experiment with creating better open-plan spaces at our public university in Denmark when a group of ten researchers moved offices, so we thought to try and put some of these ideas into practice.
The group’s response was fairly neutral, although some colleagues had doubts they could work in such an environment.
We agreed to a six-month trial period, with the following prerequisites:
- An office space for permanent staff, plus flexible work units for guests;
- A combination of working and social (informal) environments;
- Opportunities for spontaneous discussions;
- Quiet areas to do concentrated work; and
- High acceptance from staff on how the space is used.
We first defined different areas: An office space with desks, a social area containing kitchen and couches, enclosed meeting rooms for discussions, rooms to go and make calls, and silent corners for quiet reading.
This meant the group no longer had fixed telephone lines. Instead, everyone used a smartphone app, Skype for Business, which meant it was possible to sit anywhere and still make and take calls over an Internet connection.
Having passed legal and other requirements, the group were asked about their preferences, and a seating plan was drawn up. For example, it was decided that the course coordinators should remain in their own office, because they are generally involved in a lot of meetings and phonecalls which would be difficult to incorporate into an open-office space.
PROBLEMS USING AN OPEN-OFFICE SPACE EASILY RESOLVED
The trial period of six months passed – this was in 2014, and the office is still in its initial form today. However, there have been problems during this time.
For example, it was not always clear in which situations one should move to another room. The solution was to ensure that each new employee had rules explained to them.
Sometimes people booked the communication or library rooms for all-day meetings, which meant they were out of use for others. This problem was solved by making it a requirement that regular meeting rooms were used instead.
Of course, sometimes discussions or phone calls in the open-plan area could become loud or lengthy enough to disturb others, necessitating a reminder that other rooms were available for that purpose.
In general, many positive aspects appeared to be true. To some extent, it improved team work, spontaneous collaboration, and cross-fertilisation of ideas in shared spaces.
LESSONS LEARNT IN MAKING OPEN-OFFICE SPACES WORK
What have we learned and what can we recommend to others? Well, an open-office plan is not by default a good or bad thing.
As always, you need to have a strategic approach to make it work, as has been highlighted by others, and you need to consider that these designs can have the opposite effect and hurt relationships.
First, you really need to consider what sort of work is suitable for different kinds of office set-ups.
For instance, people who work in sales or customer support typically spend much of their time talking or receiving visitors, making it impossible not to disturb others (at least those not doing the same), so they need a different environment.
Second, the most difficult part is to ensure that the rules are followed consistently. Open-plan spaces can only work in the long run if all those working there stick to the rules and remind others of them.
It’s very important that top management lead from the front and aren’t hidden away in their own office, divorced from the experiences of their staff.
Hence, it is key that group leaders not only share the same office space, but also do not necessarily get the “best desk” – the one with the most privacy, for example – it’s important to show that the rules have the support of the leadership, in theory and in practice.
Third, consider the working atmosphere such an office creates: It tends to lead to an open environment in which behaviour is visible from the time an employee arrives at work – to who people are talking with and, often, what they are talking about.
This can be seen as positive, fostering a feeling of togetherness. For others such transparency can be uncomfortable.
Last, it is important to note that creative work depends upon many factors. Our research published this year indicates that the impulsiveness of team members plays an important role in their productivity.
So overall, it has never been just about the open-plan office itself (which everybody seems to hate) but about each individual who spends their time working there – and how they make the best of it.
Alexander Brem is Full Professor and Chair, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg and Honorary Professor at the University of Southern Denmark. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.