open plan office design

Why & How | Open Plan Office Design

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The origins of open plan office design were rooted in a need for greater connectivity and autonomy among workers. Recently, the influx of younger generations has compounded the need for flexible workspace. Millennials and Gen Z bring progressive work styles, rapidly developing technology, the desire for mobility and autonomy to work more effectively.

However, the open plan office receives quite a bit of unbridled hate in the form of gripes with old coworkers, yearnings for privacy, and general dissatisfaction with the subjective impact on performance. So, we’re going to take a look at why it’s so popular, why so many people hate it, and what the future looks like.

Why Do Companies Use Open Plan Office Designs?

open plan office design
70% of workplaces utilize workspace with low or no partitions

Companies inherently seek the next competitive advantage, and are facing limited access to real estate through densification of metropolitan areas. With 80% of work done today being collaborative, the open plan office can help organizations cut costs while boosting connectivity. Top performers are seamlessly shifting gears between their work and personal pursuits, blurring the definition of “workplace”. It’s a necessity to prioritize choice and connectivity while developing a cultural composition to foster a strong identity. An emphasis on embodying mission to foster engagement is a crucial differentiator. The ever-accelerating stride of innovation creates friction for companies trying to effectively leverage new developments in workplace (and mobile) technology while remaining responsive to the demands of their end-users.

Inexpensive Maintenance. Panel-hung systems and mobile furniture are typically more durable and have less expensive repair/refurbishing costs than traditional furniture. Also, it’s easier to clean/redecorate/reconfigure an open floor plan (especially with mobile furniture).

Real Estate Utilization. No partitions means more workers using less space. As companies embrace collaborative and remote work more and more, the need for private, personal enclosures decreases (along with the allocation).

Cost-Effective Supervision. Easier to monitor activity regularly without interrupting, requiring less supervisory staff.

Increased Accessibility. Increased interaction prompts people to know more about whats happening throughout the organization and lends itself to spontaneous innovation.

Collaboration. Millenials are more interested in learning from their peers than older generations, and collaboration theoretically thrives in an open setting. When team members value the time spent with each other, the developing camaraderie fosters collaboration. Despite the negative buzz it receives, the inception of the open office was pretty benevolent: provide a place to work that enhances communication and fosters community. Transfer from ownership to membership.

Why Do People Hate Open Offices?

Big Brother: Always being watched, employees tend to follow SOP more stringently than they would normally, resulting in a decrease in productivity compared to naturally finding the quickest way to do something.

Coworkers: They might not have you under scrutiny, but it can certainly feel that way. Ever trip in front of 50 sets of eyes? Even thinking about these scenarios can be strenuously embarrassing for some.

Oversharing: While we’d like to assume people aren’t nosy, workers trying to communicate need-to-know information can’t control what others see or hear.

Noise Annoys (and Decreases Productivity): In a research setting, noise has been shown to correlate with reduced cognitive performance: simple recall, arithmetic, and logical decision-making all take a hit when constantly bombarded by noise from the environment.

Fight-or-Flight Activation: Exposure to high levels of stimulation (noise, screens, interactions, etc.) for prolonged periods can trigger increased production of norepinephrine, causing high, unnecessary levels of stress because your body thinks the workplace is attacking.

How To Make the Best of Your Open Plan Office

If you feel the open plan office is something to endure, know that even the most introverted have created an experience in which they can thrive. While buying a nice pair of noise-cancelling headphones seems like an easy out, avoidance is counterproductive to really thriving in open office layouts. The key here is adapting: not the ability to adapt, but the awareness of and willingness to adjust your habits to fit your work environment. So, here are a few tips for making the best of your open plan office:

Book a Meeting Room and Don’t Invite Anyone. As long as there are no rules against it, a change of pace with a new, quieted environment under your coworkers’ assumption that you should not be bothered while in your “meeting” is a refreshing break from the regular routine.

Go to Lunch By Yourself. Pressure on social interactions and feeling like a hermit might make this one seem strange, but your stress will snowball if you don’t take the time to reflect privately.

Create a “Do Not Disturb” Signal. Let others know not to interrupt with a glaringly obvious indicator, but make sure to communicate the meaning of your signal. Do not be too off-putting or passive aggressive with your message.

Cultivate Psychological Space. Make the most of the partitions that exist, or create your own! Don’t block out the rest of the workplace and perform contrary to the open-office concept, but figure out a way to define a space such that feeling vulnerable isn’t impacting your productivity.

Work In Healthy Personal Habits. This should be more than obvious, but when you find that down-time you should use it wisely. Go for a stroll, talk to your peers, or pay a visit to a personal, secluded retreat.

How Organizations Can Make Open Plan Office Design Better

The theoretical benefits of the open plan office make sense as an investment. Organizations that engage employees and consciously develop their culture yield 150% higher EPS and 516% higher income. Theoretically, creating a flexible space that encourages collaboration will foster camaraderie and culture in your workplace, which will in turn positively impact the productivity and retention of employees. The key seems to be for organizations to inform their design with organizational culture, and not the other way around. Mimicking the moves of innovators can only go so far, which will create misalignment if that’s not what your organization needs. Here are some ways to create an open office that achieves desired outcomes:

Options. Recognize different work styles and build zones for each of them such that you strike an effective balance by reaching a consensus on what they need. Consider the need for spaces to work together, to work independently, and to interact casually, just to name a few. Budget for casual, communal, private, and recreational spaces in proportion to their usage. Also, provide options for employees from mobile seating, workspace alternatives, etc.

Autonomy. Workspaces need to rise to the day’s challenge, and the concept of the personal desk is in decline. A shift to a mobile workforce is on the rise, and the workplace needs to accommodate Remote Work. In addition, the space should foster a perceived Sense of Privacy for employees when tasks call for undivided focus.

Environment. Sound-proofing and absorption, some greenery, natural light – all important boosters to morale and productivity. Get smart about sustainability and add to your cost savings with automatic lighting, temperature control and more.

Technology. It’s hard to have a workplace at either end of the noise spectrum. Invest in instant messaging apps, headphones, etc. for your workers to head off as many unnecessary distractions as possible. Providing ample communication, support, and opportunities for people seeking a place to belong can bolster environmental performance by supporting the end-user.

Amenities. Not every business can have a cafeteria and on-site massages. However, making considerations for people’s everyday needs surrounding work (transit, nourishment, physical activity) can prove to be more than cost-effective with resulting health and morale.

Wellness. A swell of health-consciousness and tools for monitoring physical feedback make initiatives in support of well-being an attractive characteristic for the workplace.

What We Need from the Future of Open Office Design

A workplace to attract and accommodate top performers. A corporate culture that actively encourages innovation. An environment that rises to the challenges of each day for every inhabitant. We need to develop workspaces to meet a challenging combination of ideals while remaining attentive to the bottom line. We believe this begins with conversation – delineating needs, establishing etiquette, and creating an environment that levels congruence with financial measures has to start with feedback.

Alignment & Delivery: Promises should be kept. A purposeful mission embodied by the workforce is imperative for businesses trying to invoke experiential involvement. Supporting knowledge sharing and collaboration can foster a culture of innovative “Do-ers”, but realizing the vision contends on congruence.

Change Management: 70% of change initiatives reportedly fail, and we’ll wager those steep hills to ruin are paved with lackluster follow-through. Effective transitions begin with utilizing end-user feedback, setting realistic goals that still reach, and developing specific metrics. Guided by tangible strategy, a growing brand can leverage their intangibles such that cultural identity supplements the bottom line.

Engagement: Fostering organizational engagement begins with individuals. Strategically encouraging direct interaction and participation can feed the necessary sense of membership for attraction|retention in a world where amalgamations of work and life are heavily influencing the status quo

Thanks for Reading!

Exploring options for your own space? Let’s start the conversation about why you love, hate, or just want to stop hearing about open plan office designs.  Tell Us About Your Project! Or, click below to see a selection of open office plan idea starters we’ve put together!