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Putting up walls: Is the open-plan office dead?


Open-plan offices have long been the go-to layout for commercial interior designers. However, a recent Harvard University study suggests open plan architecture hinders, rather than helps, productivity.

Still, businesses default to this layout, but why? And, if studies show open-plan is no longer an attractive option, what’s next?

Why open-plan became popular

Open-plan offices have been around since the early 20th century. They’ve fallen and risen in popularity, partly because of other commercial design trends.

When the open-plan, ‘factory floor’ style of working became difficult to sustain, an alternative was sought and found in Robert Propst’s 1960s Action Office (aka, the office cubicle).

Over time, isolation caused by being boxed into a cubicle meant employee satisfaction plummeted. Companies tore the walls down and returned to open plan, hoping it would encourage collaboration, communication and a renewed feeling of workplace community.

Unfortunately, the flaws with open-plan are preventing it being a feasible option for the modern workforce.

Study finds open-plan decreases face-to-face interaction

Logical reasoning suggests removing doors, walls and barriers to communication would promote collaboration. Yet data collected during a Harvard study into the impact of the open workplace, was to the contrary.

The study tracked employee interactions within two businesses. Each company was moving to open space workplaces. Researchers found face-to-face (F2F) interaction dropped by around 70% after the move into boundaryless spaces. Interestingly, the number of electronic messages (emails and instant messages) increased — even between colleagues within close proximity of each other.

Reasons for the downturn in F2F communication could, the study argues, be due to a continued need of some boundaries to control interaction, avoid distractions and offer a level of privacy.

If you work in an open-plan office, the sight of colleagues and employees using headphones, constantly looking busy or putting in more requests to work from home is probably familiar, as they try to gain some sense of personal space.

Agile workspaces: a realistic alternative

Workforce priorities are changing and as a result there are two trends moving us away from open-plan.

The first is agile workspaces. Doing away with the idea of permanent workstations, employees have the freedom to move around the office space depending on the task in hand. This way of working encourages commercial interior designers to consider ‘task zones’. Different areas of the office are designated private and communal spaces. Employees have more options when choosing how they work, based on the specific task they need to get done. It’s a strong argument for why homey office design is a trend on the rise.

The second trend is multifunctional spaces — the need to maximise space usage. This is especially important for businesses experiencing rapid growth and changing needs.

Multipurpose light furniture and agile storage allows businesses to easily adapt from open to closed areas, construct meeting rooms, or give a single employee the head-space they need to deliver their best work. Without having to move offices.

Although diverse, agile designs have yet to be fully tested in the same manner as the Harvard study. But there’s certainly a case for stating that the open-plan office is dead.

Your current set-up

Whether employer or employee, we’d like to hear about what office plan layout you’re currently working in. Are you totally open-plan, or are there places to escape to? And what’s the feeling in the office? Let us know your thoughts on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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