Do open-plan workspaces foster more collaboration and productivity or create a cognitive dissonance that can demoralise a workforce? We asked our think tank audience to tell us about their experiences. Here are some of the respondents’ verdicts.
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9 December 2016 | FM World team
It’s not just about space any more
We’ve recently been working on the East Coast of America and I’ve been returned to a world of private offices and ‘cubes’, which here in the UK we said goodbye to 20 years ago. People complain of low collaboration, no energy, and workers not talking to each other. The most important factor that we know that impacts knowledge worker productivity – ‘social cohesion’ – is low. So the work we are doing is taking large communities of office workers from the old world to the new world of agile working, where they are provided with net IT tools and a range of carefully designed spaces equipped for a variety of tasks and we’re giving the population new understanding and practices so they can be sociable but also can have focus.
Here in the UK, for the past 20 years the application of open-plan and agile working, for most organisations, has been dominated by the drive to reduce costs without much real concern for human performance. But we’re beginning to see a shift here too, particularly for organisations whose success is based on ‘knowledge workers’ who have the opportunity to vote with their feet.
We need to shift our thinking away from ‘is it open-plan’ or is it ‘cellular offices’. What we’re really trying to do is to maximise the performance of every individual and team in the organisation and do it in the most economically effective way. We want people to be socially cohesive and know more people, but we also want people to be able to work in ones and twos with focus and without distraction. We want to do all this at the lowest cost, but to do so takes a lot of energy… it’s not just about space any more.
Andrew Mawson, managing director of AWA Consulting
Beware of introducing productivity inhibitors
As more organisations move to open-plan environments, there is a danger that they are bringing productivity inhibitors into their environments rather than creating a higher performance workplace.
It may be more cost-efficient, but at what cost? When asked whether the workplace design enables them to work productively, 66.7 per cent of those in private offices agree. For people working in open-plan environments, on a fixed desk, this drops to 52.3 per cent (below our average of 56 per cent) *. So the figures tempt people towards criticising and abandoning the open-plan movement. Surely private settings are the way to go based on the numbers? ** wUntil, that is, you look at those employees that are in flexible environments and are satisfied with the variety of spaces provided. In this sort of work environment, 73.8 per cent agree that their workplace enables them to work productively. But if an organisation does not invest in creating a whole host of different types of spaces (quiet rooms, informal breakout zones, collaboration spaces, private spaces) the result can be catastrophic.
The key to open-plan isn’t simply removing walls and hoping that everything will be all right. The key is giving people choice, variety and flexibility. Why? A number of reasons. For instance, noise. We find those that report a dissatisfaction with noise are much more likely to report that their workplace design does not support productivity. Noise is not always taken into consideration in the design of open-plan offices out there, so if you move to this type of environment and don’t pay attention to noise levels, then you’re introducing a productivity toxin into the mix.
**Based on July 2016 figures, *176,926 employees polled
Chris Moriarty, Leesman MD UK & Ireland
We’ve got to define what open-plan means
Good data collection starts with good questions. Asking people “if open-plan works” is like asking if marketing works, or if meteorology works. Open-plan means so many things to so many people. It can be done well and poorly.
It can be evidence-based or a max-packing exercise. Shared or fixed desk. Activity based or not. We’ve got to define open-plan before we can gauge any meaningful response to the question. Does poorly designed, acoustically jarring, no alternative setting open-plan suck? You bet. Does evidence-based design, nook-and-pod-filled, acoustically pleasant open-plan suck. No. Why? The subtitle says it all: how successful open-plan can be when the design is linked to good data. Hallelujah! And regarding the ‘resurgence of open-plan,’ I have to giggle. From where I sit it never left and is unlikely to. We still only use 60 per cent of our offices on average and this fluctuates more wildly than ever with increasing mobile technology. Why would a business waste good money and carbon on a footprint that’s not needed? With good data and good design, folks can get both privacy and interaction when they choose.
Hire a good data collector to understand what makes your business tick and then hire a good designer and acoustician to sort out your space.
sAnd hire a good change manager to help deliver an authentic message to your folks and get out of their way.
Monica Parker, founder of Hatch
Calibrating the expectations of business leaders
While we have much larger floor plates, if you look at an 1890s’ typing pool or a 1920s’ engineering drawing office, open-plan is not that new. For both, the work required concentration on the task in hand and I doubt if “distracting chit-chat” was encouraged.
In contrast, two university libraries I have seen and, in one case used, have a variety of spaces, ranging from the traditional “silence, books only”, through open spaces allowing cold food and water, phones/tablets/laptops and chit-chat, to breakout rooms for project teams with audio-visual provision. They also have amazing access to vast global databases in areas as diverse as engineering and art history. Although an engineer, I have only used the latter!
We know that universities are keen to attract the best staff and students and are just as “customer-focused” as anywhere in the City or Canary Wharf. Therefore, I have a theory that universities are “calibrating the expectations of our future business leaders” through the student-led facilities they provide. Already, thought leaders are providing that mixture of spaces to complement open-plan. So, while floor plates may get larger, “variety of space will still be the spice of life.
Rob Farman is an agent at PBA Energy Solutions Ltd