Is your open plan office ruining your business?

Your working environment can seriously affect your ability to think, focus and lead.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 06 Feb 2017

Open plan evangelists may preach about the undoubted virtue of transparency and the sin of silos, but have no doubt that the idea for ditching corner offices was less divinely inspired than devised in the depths of your finance department.

The open office exists to cut costs. Doing away with such nuisances as walls and executive washrooms dramatically reduces the floor space and thus property costs required for a staff of 100 or 300 people. Hotdesking, by squeezing out unused space, is just an extension of the same principle.

But there are other forces at work in modern business than the urge to penny-pinch. Increasingly, we’re realising that there are top-line consequences of our decisions about office space. The environment can add to wellbeing and productivity, and it can take away from them too: stress, employee ‘churn’ and absenteeism are just some of the hidden costs of a hideous office.

This is where it gets interesting. The open plan office, that darling of bright-eyed HR bods everywhere, doesn’t actually make us feel better.

In fact, a study last year from Savills and the British Council for Offices showed people who worked in open plan offices were marginally more likely to say it had a negative impact on their physical and mental wellbeing, and less likely to say it had a positive one.

Privacy vs openness

Time to bring back the corner office and the cubicle then? Not so fast, says Melanie Redman, senior researcher at Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures Group. Or at least, not exactly.

‘Open plan has clear benefits for collaboration, for transparency, for making people feel connected, but it only works if people have the freedom to move and spaces to move to. It doesn’t work if people are trapped in it,’ says Redman.

Clearly, different environments suit different people - your stereotypical introvert may prefer to get on with her work in peace and quiet, while an extrovert may prefer the banter and bombast of the sales pit. But the same person will also benefit from different environments at different times, depending on the tasks they have to do, the time of day or even just their mood. As is often the case with matters of engagement and wellbeing, the key is control.

With pure open plan offices, an added danger from having no control is that there’s no privacy, something Redman describes as ‘hugely important’ for leaders in particular.

‘Privacy is not about sitting all day in a private office any more, but leaders still need it. They spend so much time representing the organisational brand, so having moments of privacy throughout the day where they can relax and be themselves can relieve a lot of stress,’ says Redman, who points out that these moments can also help alleviate the dreaded symptoms of ‘calendar overload’ by helping us mentally reset between meetings.

Giving a performance review or discussing confidential financial information wouldn’t exactly work well in an open plan setting either, but that doesn’t mean farming everyone out into sound-proofed labour pods. Clearly, a balance between privacy and openness is required.

Redman says that although there isn’t any such thing as a perfect office, a mixed working environment – with some open plan and some more secluded spaces – is therefore likely to produce the best outcomes.

‘The way we think about this has to shift from just looking at the number of people who need a chair to looking at what the requirements are for a particular task your group does. You can’t just throw people in without understanding what you want to accomplish,’ she says.

It’s all about the culture

So open plan is actually good thing, as long as it’s a part of wider whole designed to suit your employees and your business. A word of warning, however:  don’t think you can just move into your ideal office and expect everything to work perfectly as a result. How people use your new space depends as much on your culture as the space itself, and culture dies hard.  

‘Most companies don’t think about how practices have to change. No one thinks to say we’re going open plan now, so speaker phones aren’t a good idea,’ says Redman. ‘You can’t change a culture just by changing a space.’

Cancel that next order of bamboo trees and bean bags then: they aren’t turning your box factory into the next Google, and they never will. 

Image credit: Phil Whitehouse/Flickr

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