Open plan offices: A victim of bad press? Or actually the worst?


By Steve Coster

Open plan offices appear to be suffering some bad press at the moment, but some of that is unfair and unwarranted. The focus has been on the merits of open plan verses enclosed individual offices. But it should not be an ‘either/or’ scenario, argues workplace design specialist Steven Coster.

A well-designed office is a nuanced hybrid of open and enclosed spaces to provide a choice of settings that suit a range of tasks – everything from informed social connections to concentrated individual work. As a workplace designer, I am not wedded to any particular approach. But when I ask employers about the environment they want to create, they usually want an effective and productive workplace. And that is not something that individually enclosed rooms, or badly designed open plan offices, for that matter, can achieve alone.

Work is increasingly a collective endeavour. The objectives of most groups are best served by including some degree of collaborative spaces that encourage people to come together to exchange information and ideas. Private focused work space is usually still important, but it is only part of the mix of what makes a successful workplace.

Poorly designed open plan offices are uniform and have no hierarchy of spaces to choose between. The resulting lack of variety and choice interferes with productivity, and so it is no surprise there is a body of research that condemns them. But to do so is a little like declaring all chairs should be banned as a result of sitting on a wobbly and uncomfortable one.

Good open plan offices are not homogeneous. They contain a variety of working environments. They have spaces for noisy meetings or social gatherings (like the kitchen), informal meeting places, work stations for collaborative tasks, and quieter spaces for individual or focused tasks. There is an emphasis on encouraging interaction and providing the appropriate mix of spaces to suit an organisation’s day-to-day operations.

I’ve been part of designing a number of predominantly open and collaborative workplaces (with a balanced choice of enclosed focused spaces), where the post-occupancy feedback from the staff has demonstrated an improvement in productivity and well-being. At Medibank’s new HQ in Melbourne, 66 per cent of staff reported they felt more productive, there was a 5 per cent reduction in absenteeism in some business units, 70 per cent felt healthier and 79 per cent felt they were more collaborative.

At Suncorp’s new offices, also in Melbourne, 77 per cent said they felt their workplace positively impacted on their productivity (up from 33 per cent at their previous offices) and 89 per cent would recommend their workplace to others (up from 36 per cent).

The design of these new workplaces was tailored to organisational need and values, and they had both gone from partially enclosed offices and mostly bad open plan, to zero individual offices and good open plan design with a diverse choice of settings.

Not all open plan offices are a failure. Like anything, they require a tailored, thoughtful design that respects and facilitates the requirements of an organisation and its people, and also positively orientates the organisation towards the future.

At the risk of sounding cliché, when it comes to open plan offices, one size does not fit all. Make sure you seek out the best mix for your organisation and workforce before abandoning your plans altogether.

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