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Dead Dream or Living Nightmare: The Open Office Plan

Dead Dream or Living Nightmare: The Open Office Plan

When designers first proposed open office plans, it was in response to the sad gray world of mid-century cube farms. Cube farms themselves were a reaction to the unpartitioned administrative spaces of the early twentieth century; those spaces in turn grew out of factory workplaces – the very first open office plans. The twenty-first century version of the open office plan was intended to increase employee interactions and boost collaboration and information exchange. The fact that open-plan offices require 50-75% less square footage per employee was appealing too, but the primary focus was to improve productivity and employee satisfaction.

The reality has been less than dream-like, however. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that, in 2017, 70% of American offices were open plan, and the goals of increased communication and collaboration have not been achieved. In fact, interactions have actually decreased. Reduced work-life balance, distracting noise levels, and a lack of privacy for both confidential work activities and personal stress have all combined to make some workers loath the sight of an open floor plan.

Researchers have now confirmed what staffers have already been saying: We need boundaries. Noise levels reduce our ability to concentrate so we put on headphones to shut out the noise – and as a by-product, we reduce interactions. Everyone is watching everyone, so people opt to work from home rather then endure the constant scrutiny of their individual work styles – and consequently, the collaborative water cooler moments can’t happen. Employees in open office plans communicate with each other more by email than by face-to-face conversations, even when they are mere feet away from each other.

And yet there are benefits to open office plans beyond the cost savings of space utilization and build-out expenses. Younger professionals gravitate toward open office plans, associating them with the excitement and innovation of start-ups. On the occasions when collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas occur in an open office, the results are better than ordinary.

A balance of openness and privacy is the key. Organizational researchers Brandi Pearce and Pamela Hinds, writing in the Harvard Business Review, recommend encouraging employees to move their desks and adapt the space as their need for collaboration or privacy changed. They found that when workers could routinely rearrange their work environment, they were much more willing to buy in to the open plan spaces.

An ever-shifting work environment calls for specialized furnishings, and designers are turning to adaptive furnishings with wheels for easy mobility, and hinged panels for quick reconfiguration. Manufacturers like Swiftspace are producing a range of adaptive furnishings that morph from semi-private desks to collaborative mini-conference rooms, offering the easy control over personal space that Pearce and Hinds advocate.

No one wants to go back to the days of the cube farm, but no one is finding the open office plan to be an ideal workplace. Enlist the services of a workspace strategy consultant who can supply adaptive furnishings – the best of both worlds.


Photo © Dmitry Ersler / Adobe Stock