Or is the open plan office given a bad wrap?

One of the most important relationships humans have is with their colleagues. And sometimes those relationships are pretty rubbish. Which kills workplace productivity.

So what’s the best level of exposure to our colleagues? In the open plan office of today, there’s not much of a choice.

As part of our Future Office series, this article looks at the research available, and whether the open plan office has a future.

A group of business work with an open plan office in the background

The open ended, open plan office, open experiment

The last few decades have seen office workers in open plan offices running around like lab rats – figuratively for the most part.

Individual office walls and cubicle dividers were torn down, in favour of the open plan office. In return, we were promised untold benefits from increased collaboration.

Now we can review the data, is the open plan office still a good idea?

Replan the open plan (office)

Are open plan offices still relevant? Or more to the point, were open plan offices ever a good idea?

While all the rage in the 1990’s (give or take), there’s now significant resistance to the open plan office, from both businesses and academics. For instance, a large study from the University of Sydney found open plan offices attract the most dissatisfaction among workers.

Meantime, a New Zealand study found shared office spaces did nothing to increase friendships, sometimes making them worse. It also found employees in open plan offices were less satisfied with the quality of their supervision.

Some companies have taken open plan a step further. Hot-desking is now common, where staff aren’t given their own desk, but swap and share day to day (a nightmare during flu season!). Others have segmenting areas based on the current task. It’s not quite hot-desking, but it’s not far off.

Despite the backlash against the open plan office, with the increasing cost of real estate there’s little managerial will to move away from shared space.

An overhead shot of a group of colourfully dressed coworkers working at a wooden table, rather than in an open plan office.

Open plan office; the key to collaboration?

There are still defenders of the open plan office. A University of Queensland study found open plan offices do provide a generally positive experience for employees and encourage collaboration.

The study’s author, Gemma Irving says office rules can mitigate the negative impacts of open plan offices.

In one team I studied, employees used flags to signal ‘do not interrupt’. They also agreed to minimise conversations in the office. Break-out rooms were available for quiet work”, she says.

The author of the New Zealand study mentioned earlier, Rachel Morrison agrees there are ways to design away the negatives.

“One way to combat visual distractions from nearby co-workers can be to use panels, book shelves, or “green walls” of plants. Noise from the office can be cancelled out with headphones”, she says.

“We are not suggesting workers should be afforded unlimited privacy and solitude. Some spontaneous interaction is needed for many types of activity-based work to succeed.”

The GoGet, semi-open plan office approach

Let’s use GoGet as a case study.

Our Sydney office is essentially open plan, but segmented by department. That way, teams collaborating regularly have one less barrier to do so.

For example, Marketing and Member Services live together, as they collaborate on overall member experience and our general communication strategy. In another room, our fleet and locations team are close, as they often work together.

Our team of developers have their own space, to give them some separation from the hustle and bustle of the office. However, they still have line of sight to the rest of the company, thanks to a large window wall.

Along with this, there are spaces employees can retreat to, along with an unspoken assumption that ‘wearing headphones = busy’. This setup works well, allowing the benefits of an open plan office, while managing the downsides.

The outside of a windowed board room full of yellow light, an open plan office in the background.

So, is the open plan office still relevant?

Like many things, it depends. Shared office space is a functional necessity. But it can help employees work better as a team, in certain circumstances. In any case, you should design with flexibility in mind.

An open plan office is basically guaranteed to work better when there are options to retreat from it. For example, bookable meeting rooms or ‘break-out workplaces’ (rooms with chairs or couches for informal collaboration).

Combine this with ‘do not disturb’ rules (using headphones or otherwise) and give employees the option to work from home occasionally, and you’ll be on the way to mitigating the worst of the open plan office.

If you’re looking to redesign, consider how segmenting the space could work for you. For GoGet, separation by team is useful, but your mileage may vary.

At the end of the day, your office needs to serve the needs of your business. If you feel your layout isn’t producing the best from your staff, consider changing things up.

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