Open plan offices are just no good

The most common office layout isn't actually that great for productivity or collaboration.
Valentin Staykov

Open plan offices are getting more and more common among all types of companies. Chances are, you’re probably working out of one right now. While they might seem like a new thing, they’re actually over a hundred years old.

Interior of the Larkin Administration Building, built in 1906
Interior of the Larkin Administration Building, built in 1906

Back then, employees were put in tight quarters, with managers in offices encircling the open space. This was so employees could be monitored, to drive up productivity, and save on real estate. You’ll notice employee needs were not high up on that list of priorities.

Open plan office space kept evolving over the years, becoming more organic in the 1960s with the Burolandschaft movement, and then transitioning to the ever dreaded cubicle farms in the 80s and 90s.

As technology advanced, and workers became more and more mobile, this gave rise to the modern open plan office. You know the one, with rows and rows of tables and monitors, as well as the occasional meeting room along the side.

As modern as the office above looks, if the photo from 1906 was in colour and had some monitors on the tables, I’d honestly be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

If all you care about is fitting as many people as possible in a given amount of space, then this layout works great. But if you’re doing it with the hopes of making people more productive or encourage collaboration, it’s most likely not working.

To do meaningful and productive work, people need to be able to focus and that often requires a quiet space. Putting a lot of people in one big room inevitably ends up creating a lot of background noise (unless you want your work space to be like a library).

And the bigger your team gets, the bigger the space needs to be. This makes things worse as the more people you have talking in an open space, the more the noise starts to echo and amplify. Have you ever wondered why you tend to lose your voice after a networking event in a big hall?

If you walk into most open plan offices you'll see a pattern. If people are at their desks working, they most likely have headphones on. So if your employees want to be productive, they need to actively find a way to block out noise, whether with noise-cancelling headphones, blasting music really loudly, or just straight up earplugs.

To bring things full circle, there are now startups offering pre-fabricated phone booths to help companies with open plan offices give their employees a quiet place to work.

But at least all those people being close to each other and talking helps to improve collaboration and creativity, right?

Well, not quite. A recent study by some smart people at Harvard found that open plan offices reduce face-to-face interactions by around 70%. Some of that was offset by an increase in electronic interaction like email and instant messaging but not fully (maybe that’s why Slack’s doing so well). Overall, that spontaneous collaboration everyone looks for, the kind that spurs new ideas and innovation, is actually hurt by putting people close together with little privacy.

There are some cases where open plan offices do work well, a key one being early stage startups. If you’ve got 5 to 15 people all working on the same thing, putting them all in one room can actually work pretty well. But even then, I’d argue that’s more from necessity than preference. Open plan offices are the easiest and cheapest to set up afterall. All you need is a room, a couple of desks and chairs, and you’re good to go. If you’re a cash strapped startup, it’s a no-brainer.

So, if the open plan sucks, how should you set up your office?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. But in researching this post, I did form some opinions.

Offices should have private and quiet spaces for employees so they can do deep, focused work. There should be meeting rooms where small teams can work together for short periods of time and then go back to execute on individual tasks. Of course, this isn't to say you should design your space to be isolating. Having a common space, where people can socialize and collaborate when needed is pretty essential. And encouraging people to take breaks and socialize with coworkers is always a good thing. After all, well-rested and happy employees are more productive.

One way to set this up is the hub and spoke approach. The idea behind this is to have one large central common area where employees can gather and socialize, with private office spaces that spoke out from the main hub. The common area would have one entrance, with hallways leading to and from the private office areas. Since these hallways end up getting a lot of traffic on a regular basis by design, this makes it more likely for people to bump into each other and have conversation. And since anyone walking around wouldn’t be deeply focused on something, people are more likely to engage in meaningful discussions, exactly the kind that can spur innovation.

One famous example of this is Building 20 at MIT, which produced a vast amount of innovation over its 55 year existence.

MIT's Building 20

Another key thing to consider is adaptability. What you and your employees need from an office can change on a regular basis. You don’t want to be in a situation where you spend a ton of money setting up an office, only to have it not suit your needs a few months down the line. Things like buying furniture that’s easily movable (think stuff on wheels), and minimizing set fixtures in the office can go a long way to alleviating that. You can also provide bare-bones, private work areas for employees, and give them the freedom and resources to customize it in a way that works for them.

This was one of the main ideas behind the Action Office concept that originated in the 60s. It was a line of office furniture that was designed to provide privacy for employees but allow them to customize and personalize their workspace based on their needs. Ironically, this line of furniture was what ended up giving rise to the cubicle farm office design of the 80s. The problem was the designers of the furniture sold it in modular pieces and the cheapest parts were the partition walls. The idea was sound, but the people designing the offices were more concerned with cutting costs than what was best for employees.

Putting this much time and resources into office design obviously isn't feasible for everyone. And you shouldn't be trying to do this if you're strapped for cash and can barely afford a room in a large co-working space. But if and when you have a large space and the budget to design it, you should seriously think about whether an open plan office is the way to go for you.

That's my opinion on office design. But I'm a firm believer of strong opinions held weakly, so if I'm missing any benefits of open plan offices I would love to hear from you.

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