Open-Plan Offices: The Insane and the Insanely Good

In February of this year, Inc declared 9 Reasons That Open-Plan Offices are Stupid. In May, the Sydney Morning Herald questioned whether open-plan offices are insane. Once or twice, I have found myself working in an open-plan environment in less-than-ideal work conditions – maybe I am positioned slightly closer to the kitchen than I’d like; perhaps I am too embroiled in the unwanted conversations of nearby co-worker’s. The noise and distraction led me to wonder whether it is all becoming a bit insane. Plugging in headphones are one thing, but I sometimes wonder whether I need stronger boundaries, physical and mental, to be a self-contained, fully productive and creative worker bee.

The move to open-plan offices and hot-desking solutions are an inevitable fact for the modern workplace, challenged with designing spaces that foster ideas and collaboration. And yet, with the move, comes positive and negative consequences. Embracing the move to open-plan requires its designers, and its users, to grasp both sides of the argument to make informed decisions about our human spaces that lead to outcomes that are better for all.

The Argument Against Open-Plan

Chewing through arguments against open-plan environments, a few common threads result. Firstly, open-plan work environments lack privacy. How can staff be expected to sit alongside coworkers from various levels and departments and have honest conversations? How can coworkers really be expected to collaborate, create and innovate with all that peripheral noise? Thirdly, there is the debate about the creation of a one-size-fits-all solution (producing a floor of otherwise ‘battery hens’) that don’t cater to the workspace needs and preferences of individual workers. People work best in different ways, and workers are best categorised along a spectrum of needs (spatial, social, emotional) and preferences. Working in an open-plan environment has increased my own awareness of my spatial needs, as an extrovert who does enjoy team interaction, but also as a detailed thinker who needs quiet times to work through creative problems.

The Argument For Open-Plan

To answer this question, we really have to address another: ‘Why Move to Open-Plan?’. The central tenet of the argument is this: if staff interaction is made easier by open environments, the flow of information and collaborative interaction will be greater still. Without having to book formal meetings, without having to knock on doors, colleagues can get faster answers to complex problems. What’s more, all this interaction is working behind-the-scenes to complement staff camaraderie, as we interact on very human, personal levels with those around us. For businesses, this leads to better outcomes; not only through the reduced cost of reduced floor space, facilities, utilities, and hardware, but greater interaction and collaboration can lead to innovation. Often being siloed in a corner-office doesn’t lead to the kind of advancements that drive sustained business growth.

Where Does the Compromise Lie?

What we have seen, then, is that there is no one solution for the ideal workspace; the compromise lies is understanding the patterns and preferences of your entire team to design a range of spaces that satisfy various work styles. Open-plan presents its positive merits, but it doesn’t suit the way staff members want to work at every point of the day. Design Thinking helps, by working out the makeup of your workspace environment through understanding the ’emotional, psychological and behavioural’ preferences of various users. From this place of knowledge, you can start to design insanely good environments that do assist work for the better.

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