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The backlash against open-plan offices: segmented space

Open-plan offices may seem like a good idea but research shows they have a negative effect on employees. www.shutterstock.com

The backlash against open-plan offices: segmented space

Open-plan offices may seem like a good idea but research shows they have a negative effect on employees. www.shutterstock.com

Looking back on the changes in office design over the past 30 years, it is easy to see why some employees feel as if they have been subjects in a giant ongoing experiment.

For decades the office has moved from private to open plan and, more recently, to no desk at all. These changes have been driven almost simultaneously by the push to reduce real estate cost and also to increase collaboration among employees.

While real estate cost savings appear to have been achieved, the negative effects of the open-plan office on employees have now been well documented. A large body of research shows these offices are noiser; employees have difficulties concentrating and are unable to hold private conversations.

The promise of increased collaboration in open plan appears to have very little evidence to support the idea. A study of more than 42,000 employees found that open-plan office environments did little to increase interaction.

Given all this evidence, it is perhaps unsurprising that a recent study by Oxford Economics found the impact of open-plan office design is far greater than executives realise. The report found both productivity and employee peace of mind suffer in the open workplace. Although there appears to be a growing realisation of the negative effects, the results showed few companies have effective strategies in place to resolve these problems.

Another key issue in the open-plan office is that it doesn’t cater to either differences in individuals or differences in the type of work that needs to be undertaken. The time workers are spending on collaborative tasks is decreasing, while time on quiet concentrated work is increasing.

In response to these issues, organisations have been experimenting with ways to segment workplaces to overcome these problems. Articles on new office design are peppered with concepts such as “caves”, “campfires”, “town squares” and “city zones”.

The segmented office is based on the idea that different spaces are needed to support different tasks and different personalities. Sleep pods, library spaces, mobile-free zones and cafes are becoming standard features of new office designs.

Employees are encouraged to move between the different areas based on what they are doing at the time. Tasks such as taking a phone call, holding a meeting, doing work that requires focus and quiet or work that needs collaboration with others are all allocated separate areas.

While some employees see this as a positive move, the changes often don’t go far enough to allow concentrated, productive work. What if your co-workers are just noisy people in general?

Julian Treasure, sound consultant and author of the book Sound Business, suggests employees are one-third as productive in open-plan office designs as in quiet rooms. In research I am conducting, many employees report that having to find a space to work each morning is tiring, while others resent having to move around to do different tasks.

The practicality of moving to different spaces while carrying laptops, power cords and other documents and materials needed to complete work can be tiresome at best and impractical at worst. The inability to find co-workers when needed appears to be another common complaint in early results of the study I am undertaking. Some employees opt out of IT-based location identification systems in order not to be interrupted.

Other key issues emerging in my research are that often the number of phone booths and meeting rooms is limited. This results in wasted time and frustration trying to find somewhere to meet or take a call.

When the need for confidential conversations arise, such issues often need to be dealt with immediately. Employees report to me that finding private places to converse in such situations is challenging – being told to “book a room” or “go to a coffee shop” is not uncommon.

The overall office size in Australia is relatively small. As a result, offices being designed to embrace the segmented idea can end up having a gym with a rowing machine as well as the cafe space within metres of the open-plan desk area.

It seems we still have a way to go. Recent research in the Harvard Business Review indicates the push for collaboration is too much of a good thing; staff are increasingly demanding quiet spaces to work where they can focus and concentrate.

With many working from home or other third places to get work done, does the office still matter?

Some authors suggest the office will die out altogether. Nikil Saval, in his book Cubed, goes so far as to suggest leisure is over as the office follows its employees everywhere thanks to the cloud.

Yet the imperative to get it right appears more important than ever. While we may indeed be able to work from anywhere, it seems we still want to come to the office.

Two-thirds of employees prefer to build relationships face-to-face, and the majority prefer to build that connection in an ideal workplace. How we create the ideal workplace remains to be seen.

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