Millions of people work in open plan offices around the world today, but are they a haven for collaboration and creativity, or is the open plan office design just a noisy nightmare? While proximity to your colleagues makes sharing and generating much easier, it is just as easy to share the results of last night’s X factor as it is to discuss the findings of your latest project. We look at whether open plan office space drives productivity and if there are ways to secure the benefits of an open plan office while restricting unnecessary chatter.
The history of open plan offices
Leading up to the 1950s, an open plan office would usually comprise of row after row of desks or benches, where secretaries or admin staff performed repetitive tasks. In these environments, noise – such as the ‘secretarial chatter pool’ – was seen as a negative. In the fifties, Quickborner, a German team, came up with a spin on the open plan concept – the ‘office landscape’, a design that made use of curved screens, furniture, potted plants and organic geometry in order to create work groups on large, open floors (pictured right – source: BBC News). This concept was then improved on by office furniture companies, who developed cubicles comprising of panel-hung or systems furniture.
During the late 20th century, the open plan office concept evolved much further, with companies experimenting with different designs; mixing group workstations, private offices, cubicles and open workstations. These would either be on a desk-to-employee basis or utilised a hot-desking model where employees would just take any unit that was free.
These later office designs were based upon studies of patterns of communication between different parts of an organisation and different individuals. Discussion was no longer seen as a chatter pool – the new open plan office was meant to encourage sharing, creativity and communication between individuals and teams. This brings us to the present day, where managers debate whether the benefits of close communication between employees outweigh the inevitable discussion of the weekend’s binge drinking sessions or that new restaurant that just opened around the corner.
Types of open plan office:
There are many possible layouts for an open plan office but the following are common types:
- Team-oriented ‘bullpen’: With this layout, employees can see and hear each other freely, but desks are grouped into teams.
- Low-panelled cubicles: With low-panelled cubicles, employees can see over the top of panels when they are sat down.
- High-panelled cubicles: With high-panelled cubicles, employees can’t see each other when they are sat down.
- Clusters or ‘pods’: These are a group of low-panelled work stations, separated by high panels from other pods.
Each type of design makes some compromises – a completely open ‘bullpen’ design will encourage the most collaboration but could foster the most noise too; but use of high panels (which usually are designed to absorb noise) will minimise chatter but inhibit communication to some extent.
Problems with open plan office design
Although open plan office design can encourage collaboration, as noted, managers can be concerned about unnecessary chatter. Aside from this, there is another concern: lack of noise. Some open plan offices have no chatter at all and this can inhibit collaboration. The more quiet an office is, the more difficult it is to have a conversation without feeling uncomfortable. It also makes confidential conversations particularly difficult. It would therefore seem that in an open plan layout, a certain level of noise is actually desirable. Some companies have gone so far as to engineer this ‘buzz’, broadcasting ‘pink noise’ from a sound system. This is a sound that is similar to white noise, and it has the effect of making human speech less discernible.
There are other issues with having a large number of people work together in the same room: one size doesn’t fit all. Not everyone can agree on whether the aircon should be on or off, the blinds open or shut, whether (smelly) food should be eaten at the desk or taken to a lunch area, and how loud the phones should ring. There is competition for the best desk locations too.
A new version of open plan:
The open plan concept has seen much evolution through the years and a new version is rapidly emerging. Rather than rows of desks or planned workstations, the new open plan office space is a free-flowing space, where you can set up your laptop wherever you like – be it on a beanbag in the lunch area or on a sofa in the coffee lounge. Mind Candy’s office (pictured right) is an exceptional example of this. Situate in the ‘silicon roundabout’ area, the company behind Moshi Monsters have everything from pods to a tree house for their staff to work in. The relaxed atmostphere is both creative and inspiring fro its employees.
There are both pros and cons of the open plan office space design, and each business will need to weigh up whether the pros outweigh the cons for them. Here are some to consider when making your choice:
Pros of open plan office design:
- They are usually cheaper as less space is required.
- Employees can collaborate and share ideas, perhaps benefiting from the experience of others.
- They encourage better social interaction and good relationships with work colleagues, which contributes to staff morale and job fulfilment.
Cons of open plan office design:
- You have no privacy.
- They can be noisy even when all the chat is work-related (although this can be limited to some extent if sound absorbing boards are used).
- They can be too quiet, making conversations awkward and not private.
- They can be very distracting – for example, with people walking to and from their desks.
- You have no control over your environment.
- They tend to be visually monotonous.
- Placing a large number of devices (e.g. computers, printers) together in one space can add to the heat and noise.