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Is Open-Plan Office best for your Workplace Culture?

Is the open-plan design suitable for the people in your workplace?

To open or not to open. That is the question… that has been haunting most Human resources (HR), Facility Management (FM) and Real estate (CRE) professionals in organisations around the world, when it comes to the workplace (open) plan design. Just like the miniature angel and devil standing on someone’s shoulders and whispering in your ears, we have all heard the argument and its opposite:

Collaboration comes more naturally in a workplace where there are no barriers. Open plan offices foster team spirit and create a social space as opposed to a closed-off individual space”.1

“Face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after some Fortune 500 firms transitioned to open offices” 2

So what is a workplace professional to do?

Over the years, the pendulum has swung from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other. After offices made of an endless maze of closed-off cubicles and closed offices lining endless corridors, we have seen a 180 degree shift to offices made of a vast open landscape with no walls to be seen as far as the eye can see. Throughout this transition, we have also clearly realised that none of those extreme scenarios actually work. The truth is; it is not about the open plan office design. It seems to me we are asking the wrong question.

Today, we are facing a series of challenges that, whether new or not, are of a magnitude never faced before. The solutions that worked yesterday, do not work anymore today. We need new solutions, new answers. Furthermore, we need new questions. In other words, we need to innovate. By innovation I mean the sum of asking the right questions and creating new answers. 

One of the new questions that we need to ask is not about what the workplace design needs to be, but rather what is the organisation’s goal when it comes to people? Are we aiming to increase collaboration? protect uninterrupted focused work or facilitate social interactions? Is the increase desired intra-teams, inter-teams or intra-departments, online or face-to-face? Further than defining the needs, we also need to identify the risks, what could this transformation destroy? What is working now that we want to preserve? 3.

What we quickly realise is that, when it comes to the open plan offices question, it is not about either or. It is not about open plan or ‘closed’ plan. Rather, it is about finding the right combination for the right needs, a combination that is able to offer employees two essential dimensions: choice and control. 

Workplace at KIT Tropical Institute in Amsterdam designed by AKKA Architects

Over nearly a decade, we have observed first hand in our projects that when the design of the workplace 
a) offers people choice among a good variety of different work settings, and,
b) empowers them to exercise control over when, what and where to work, employees are invariably less stressed, more productive, and happier (as they reported in their own words). In fact, as we dug deeper, we were pleased to find that our own findings were backed by research.
Research from the Harvard Business Review found out that knowledge workers whose companies allow them to help decide when, where, and how they work were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, performed better, and viewed their company as more innovative than competitors that didn’t offer such choices. 

“Employees with choice are 10% more innovative than employees without choice. Their job performance is 5% higher, their job satisfaction is 10% more than the others and the workplace satisfaction is increased by 12%4.

This of course has to be checked against the specific goals of the company to ensure the results (such as, in the example above, an increase an innovation, performance and job satisfaction) are aligned with the company goals (See the cautionary tale in footnote #3). “Leaders need to make the call about what collective behaviours should be encouraged or discouraged and how. Their means should include not just the design of workspace configurations and technologies but the design of tasks, roles, and culture as well5.

Furthermore, I believe that the workplace culture, behaviours and subsequent needs of every company, should constitute an essential part of the workplace architecture and design process and it is indeed the role of the architect to facilitate this not only by engaging the leaders, but in fact the entire workforce in an iterative participatory process

As an HR manager, you can now stop struggling with the question of open plan or not open plan. It is actually neither and both. It is not about what the open plan is, it is about what it goes.

"It is not what it is. It is what it does."

Your workplace is a context to the interactions of everyone in it. And the context can only be as important as the quality of the interactions it fosters. In a workplace, nor design or architecture should be the star of the show, people should be. And architecture should be the facilitator of better interactions. The key to the open-plan office design question is therefore to find the right balance that is constituted of a variety of space settings that support the culture, behaviours and needs of the workplace. It goes without saying that once the balance is found in one organisation, it cannot be the answer to all other companies, in fact, I would be surprised if it was the answer to even one other company. 

Just as varied and unique people are, so are organisations. So how do you find the right balance of between your workplace design and the needs of your people for your organisation? My best answer is to run experimental pilots; easy, inexpensive and fast prototypes to understand the culture, behaviours and needs of your own organisation. This approach is what we at AKKA, call Workplace Acupuncture. 

In fact we are currently working on putting together a detailed case study of one of the Workplace Acupuncture projects we have performed for a bank in The Netherlands, where you will be able to read about the series of experiments and prototypes we have performed for them. Now, that is what we call Agile Architecture! Architecture! Get in touch with us at letstalk@akkaarchitects.com to be the first to receive the case study as soon as it is ready. 

Your workplace is a context to the interactions of everyone in it. And the context can only be as important as the quality of the interactions it fosters. In a workplace, architecture should not be the star of the show, your employees should have this role. And the architecture is a facilitator of better interactions. The key to the open plan office question is therefore to find the right balance that is constituted of a variety of space settings that support the culture, behaviours and needs of the workplace. It goes without saying that once the balance is found in one organisation, it cannot be the answer to all other companies. Just as people are unique, so are organisations. So how do you find the right balance of work settings for your organisation? The best answer is to run experimental pilots; easy, inexpensive and fast prototypes to understand the culture, behaviours and needs of your own organisation. This approach is what we at AKKA, call Workplace Acupuncture.

If you are interested to see how a multitude of work setting can be achieved by architecture, download here AKKA’s Case Studies for the Innovative Workplace which will help you to achieve the right balance in between open plan office and close plan office. 

Where can we send you AKKA’s Case Studies for the Innovative Workplace?

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Case studies for an innovative workplace

1. https://www.workspacedesign.co.uk/the-benefits-of-an-open-plan-office/

2. https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-truth-about-open-offices

3. A cautionary tale illustrating this point comes to us from Mori Building, one of the largest property-management companies in Japan. After implementing some changes to increase productive collaboration among the teams in its corporate headquarters, Mori discovered that although it achieved the results it wanted, it also inadvertently created a new problem. While the interactions between teams increased, those within teams fell drastically. Initially this was a good result since it meant that people were bypassing managers who appeared to be communication bottlenecks. The problem appeared 6 months later, when it became clear that quality of the work dropped. It seems that managers, while they may have been communication bottlenecks, were also gatekeepers of quality.

4. https://hbr.org/2014/01/employees-perform-better-when-they-can-control-their-space

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