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An architect’s defense of open plan offices

A recent study of how employees communicate in open plan offices seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of this popular workplace design. But the study had an essential flaw, writes architect Ashley L. Dunn.

An architect’s defense of open plan offices
[Source Image: tarras79/iStock]

Recently, a team of Harvard researchers set out to determine whether open plan offices help employees interact with each other. Open plan offices have come under intense scrutiny, as studies link the design to poor acoustics and employee performance, but companies continue to build them, because they’re cost-effective, and they’re believed to foster communication and collaboration among employees. The Harvard study wasn’t exactly encouraging, at least not at first glance: It concluded that wall-free offices encourage workers to talk less and email more. Collaboration appeared to be reduced in the subjects’ workplaces.

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[Source Image: tarras79/iStock]

The study attracted a lot of attention–including in this publication–in part because it was the first to objectively measure how workers communicate in an open plan design through microphones and electronic badges. Yet the study had an essential flaw: The extreme open plan offices they studied.

[Source Image: tarras79/iStock]

The study only tested how much collaboration happens in poorly designed and extreme open plan offices with absolutely no walls or partitions. But the vast majority of offices used by leading organizations that are categorized as “open plan” have collaboration spaces and dedicated areas for private conversation.

Extreme open offices–work areas without the choice of meeting rooms, breakout spaces, or telephone booths–are unlikely to appeal to business managers who want to keep employees happy. Furthermore, a designer well-versed in workplace strategy would never suggest such an environment for a client.

Every office needs places where employees feel free to talk–which typically requires some element of privacy. As we’ve found in our line of work, designing offices for various organizations and Fortune 500 companies, a thoughtful mix of open and closed spaces is key to any successful office design.

Individual spaces need to be assessed case by case and not lumped into a “big data” mind-set that rewards quantitative measures over qualitative ones. There’s a range of potential workspace designs between traditional offices and the totally open plan.

[Source Image: tarras79/iStock]

Best Practices in Open Offices

Include open spaces and walls. Walls are good, and open space is also good. It is the thoughtful ratio and intersection of the two that make a successful workplace. Every office needs a place where employees feel like they can talk and be honest, which requires some element of privacy. Plus a floor plan can reflect different teams and work functions, for example by organizing open workstations into neighborhoods.

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Tailor the workplace. This is an obvious one, but it bears mentioning. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all office design. Each design should be customized to the culture and workstyles of the individuals who work in the space.

Educate occupants. Organizational leaders and their staff should understand how to use the space they’re in. Much of this is common sense. No one wants to be the employee who annoys her colleagues by holding a meeting in the middle of an open work space.

Ashley L. Dunn is director of workplace at the architecture firm Dyer Brown, Boston.

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