Time to rethink the open plan office?

I’m not going to lie to you – open plan is often better for the bottom line in the short term, which is why it’s so attractive to those looking to give their office a facelift.

But, I’m going to push the boat out a little – be a little controversial – and say that open plan is not the best plan for the long-term bottom line.

In fact it could cost you a whole lot more.

Let’s be clear: when talking about open-plan, I’m referring to the traditional, old school open plan layout. You know the one – a sea of desks and a couple of meeting rooms.

I can hear you all gasp in exasperation, and I agree. After all, the Spaceworks team work in an open plan office and we love it.

But have you noticed more and more employees plugging in their headphones? I have, and here’s a good reason as to why.

A recent survey of 10,500 workers in Europe, North America and Asia found that more than 85% of employees were dissatisfied with their office environment and struggling to concentrate.

The research was conducted by Europe B2B products and services supplier Expert Market, which discovered that 54% of workers would prefer to work in separate offices, while 65% of the workers thought that the lack of natural light negatively impacted their mood. Plus, employees reported that the open-plan design of many offices encouraged a form of negative competition between staff, as well as a hostile working environment.

I have my own theories about this – I mean what’s wrong with a bit of healthy competition? However, happy employees mean happy business. A little like ‘happy wife, happy life’.

Other findings: peace and quiet came out on top of the list of things which could improve employees' working day, and came above having the ability to have regular breaks and office cake.

Also, disengagement in the workplace and subsequent loss of productivity is currently estimated to cost American companies up to US$550 billion and UK companies up to £70 billion a year.

I understand that these findings are frustrating. After all, we’ve spent the last decade demolishing offices and placing senior staff into open plan and amongst the crowds. But, there are solutions.

Your open plan should be meticulously designed with spaces available for noisy, interactive collaboration, areas for breakouts and informal meetings, and focus areas where employees have the option to have some quiet time.

When our people can focus more, they produce better work, faster – it’s that simple, and probably similar to perfecting a factory production line. Get it right, and employees can churn out more product. 

Our latest project at Auckland incubator The Icehouse was designed with all the above in mind. An open plan space with a perfect balance of areas facilitating concentrated work time and the opportunity to socialise and collaborate.

All food for thought, but worth thinking about.

Lizzi Hines is senior designer and managing director of Auckland-based design agency Spaceworks.