Should we ban open plan offices?
21st September 2016
... Comments

The evidence around open plan offices is, to say the least, mixed. You see, it is easy to believe that open plan is better because it replaces a hierarchical office structure with something far more democratic, open and engaging.

And much thought on open plan reflects this, although often the real reason is that it is cheaper because it uses less space and requires less building work.

However, a variety of research has found that open plan is distracting, disruptive and decreases performance. It can be stressful because of all these things, but also because open plan spaces are often monitored, or at least feel so.

This means that any benefit from an egalitarian system with quick and easy access to team members and an open forum for ideas and knowledge share, is quickly swept aside by feelings of vulnerability and concerns over trust and privacy.

Can open plan offices work?

This is not to suggest that open plan offices are somehow wrong and never work. When thought out carefully and done with the involvement of people working in the space, when there is the right balance of privacy and collaboration, trust and expectation and freedom and responsibility, then performance and welfare can both be enhanced.

So let’s move away from right and wrong and simplified arguments. Surely, it is better to consider the design and layout of office space in terms of type of work, different tasks, acoustics, ergonomics, workflow and employee preferences.

From there, it is possible to discern the best plan for the people in your business. This may turn out to be open plan, but it may be more individual space or a combination of both. Even better, it might include these types of space but also allow for meeting areas (formal and informal), team work areas, concentration booths and more.

It is always dangerous to talk about ruling one thing in or out. So let’s not ban open plan offices, let’s just make sure they are the right solution or not; and if not, know what we are going to replace them with, and why.


Further reading:

Guardian: Open plan offices bad for your health

Insight: 300 year-old idea explains enduring appeal of open plan offices

SteelcaseReport: Engagement and the global workplace

About the Author

Barry Harvey

Member since: 15th February 2012

Marketer, content creator, social media enthusiast, business agility specialist and interested in the future of work. Currently Director of Agile Business Partnership CIC offering specialist advice on...

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