How to make the most of an open-plan office

Open-plan working is increasingly popular with companies, but critics claim it can damage productivity and morale.

At Facebook’s campus building in California, its CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits at his desk amidst almost 3,000 of his staff. The cavernous structure is the world’s largest open-plan office and has been described as the workplace of the future.

Since Silicon Valley embraced ‘frictionless working’ in the past decade or so it has been adopted in almost every sector. Around 70 percent of US offices now have some type of open-plan design and Australian organisations are increasingly following suit.

Tearing down the barriers is seen as a way to foster collaboration and creativity. Open-plan is also considered more egalitarian than traditional layouts, and because companies can fit more people into the same space, it is more cost-effective too.

However, not everyone is happy. In recent years, a growing body of research has highlighted the negative effects of open workspaces including lack of privacy and constant distractions. Studies suggest that people working in them have lower satisfaction with their work spaces and take more sick days.

Worse still, it seems open offices may have the opposite effect to that intended, and reduce interactions as workers find ways to avoid colleagues such as using earphones or spending more time working from home. So which side is correct?

Gemma Irving, a PhD student at UQ Business School, has spent months observing and interviewing staff within different open workspaces and analysing how teams interact. She believes the situation is more nuanced and the answer depends on a range of factors including the nature of people’s jobs.

Gemma says: “Open plan offices can encourage teamwork – provided the team have a reason to work together and want to do so. 

“However, simply placing people in a shared workspace will do little to foster collaboration by itself. Certainly managers should not adopt shared spaces in the hope of breaking down existing silos, because their efforts may be futile.”

She has the following advice for companies considering switching to an open-plan layout:

1. Consider if it is right for your business

“While employers want to emulate the success of Facebook or Google, what works for tech firms wouldn’t necessarily be right for an insurance company or a bank,” says Gemma. Open workspaces offer opportunities for rapid sharing of information and vicarious learning, so they are good for those working in rapidly changing environments or who have inexperienced team members as they can get up to speed more quickly.

However, they are less suitable for stable teams of professionals who work in clearly defined roles and who already collaborate successfully through meetings or by emails. And while open-plan offices encourage informal co-ordination and save time on meetings, there is a risk that team members may neglect long-term planning.

2. Give workers a say

All too often with office moves, organisations fail to consult their staff who are then forced to operate in workspaces unsuitable for their job. Research suggests that workers have more positive experiences if they have a say in the arrangements. Therefore, be sure to consult staff on important details such as where they would like to sit and what type of storage they would need.

3. Locate teams with similar needs together

With more large spaces being converted to open-plan, increasingly teams from different disciplines find themselves sharing the same workspace, which can cause real problems if their needs conflict. Managers should locate employees who do similar types of work together – for example, those who are frequently on the phone or talking to colleagues in one area, and those who are highly focused and need quiet space in another.

“During the course of the research, I encountered numerous examples in which this simple principle was not adhered to,” says Gemma. “Employees in noisy call centres were sharing with programmers who required quiet concentration; human relations officers engaged in frequent interactions were collocated with scientists. When employees who do similar work share an open-plan office, they find it easier to empathise with the work requirements of other people.”

4. Establish group norms

Help people to develop a shared understanding of how to use the space. This can be done through a formal workshop where employees develop their own guidelines for behaviour.

“When people understand the environment that their colleagues find productive, they are better able to adjust their own working style to accommodate them,” adds Gemma. “Even if they don’t always adhere to them, having broad rules in place fosters trust and open communication so people feel more comfortable raising their concerns with others.”

5. Use portable technology

Give staff laptops instead of fixed computer monitors and ensure they have mobiles. Technology should support flexible working. This ensures people are not tied to a desk and can work from home if they need time and space to finish a project or move out of the open-plan office to make a private phone call.

6. Create break-out areas

Similarly people need access to private spaces. In a noisy office, that might be a quiet space for focused work and, in a quiet office, a space for interactions and confidential conversations. In fact, areas such as kitchens and break-out zones are often more conducive to creating interactions than open-plan spaces as people may feel more confident holding conversations without others listening in.

7. Use a ‘neighbourhood’ concept

In larger offices where ‘hot desking’ is the norm and seating is not allocated, it is easy to lose the sense of collegiality as staff turn up to work to find the only space available is among complete strangers. One solution is to create ‘neighbourhoods’ and allocate staff an area but not an actual desk. Even if they don’t know exactly where they will be sitting, at least they will get to know most of the people around them.

Last updated:
27 February 2019