Open offices are bad!


Sensationalist noise abounds on “open offices.”

They decrease face-to-face conversation and increase email volume! They are loud and make it impossible to focus! They increase stress, sickness, sexism, and decrease security!

While it’s illogical to villainize a configuration of interior architecture with inanimate furniture, the volume of this topic warrants an assessment of intent, use, and impact of workplace components. How did the vision of the user-centered Action Office become sentenced to a sea of cubicles in Dilbert’s dungeon and then released into haphazardly packed benching desks?

What happened to responsible, empathetic design?

Before spiraling onto the next evolution in this path, let’s use the refreshed optimism of the new year and awareness of the power of place to define and address the open office.

While there are several interpretations of the open office definition, the Harvard studies on the unintended effects of open office defines it as space where “one entire floor was open, transparent and boundaryless… [with] assigned seats,” and the other had “similarly assigned seats in an open office design, with large rooms of desks and monitors and no dividers between people's desks.”

As workplace strategists and designers whose mantra is creating from the inside-out, we first seek to understand the end-user. How do their teams define success? What activities and norms enable success? For any open office occupants experiencing challenges, the workplace may not be in alignment with their work activities.

Supporting work activities requires three integrated workplace components:

— Physical environment: what you can see and touch from curb to desk
— Culture: values, beliefs, behaviors
— Tools, devices and processes: mechanisms that guide how work gets done

The intent of the Harvard study space adjustment was to increase the volume of face to face interaction. No information was provided regarding communication of this intent with participants or adjustment of cultural elements, tools, devices, or processes. The study concluded that “because the antecedents of human interaction at work go beyond proximity and visibility, the effects of open office architecture on collaboration are not as simple as previously thought.”

Altering the physical environment impacted behavior, but it did not fulfill desired behavior. All three workplace components must work together in support of desired behaviors to enable success. Often a key design flaw with assigning desks in an open office is the lack of choice and space variety for employees to best complete all activities needed for their team’s success. Face to face interaction is one of numerous behaviors that comprise success.

There are many ways to solve the workplace puzzle, and one approach doesn’t fit all. Does this mean there must be 27 space types to support 27 unique work activities? No, there does not need to be a space dedicated to reading Dilbert comics. One physical solution built with flexibility can be used in countless ways. A group with a goal to onboard new team members could intentionally assign seats to each employee based on learning opportunities. Once onboarded, they could dedicate a zone for coming together to collaborate and zones to break apart and focus on independent tasks. Space assignment, behavior norms, and technical infrastructure can dictate the success or failure of a solution.

For zones with fewer physical barriers, planning, design, and change management tactics can ensure a successful open office environment:

Provide some degree of seated visual privacy to open individual spaces.
Orient individual spaces and focus zones away from high traffic areas.
Utilize furniture systems with partitions and orient monitors to serve as visual obstructions.

Communicate the intent behind the workplace and each space type in achieving the organization’s purpose.
Train employees on new ways of working in different space types. This engagement is essential to mitigate cognitive constraints imposed by fewer boundaries.
Facilitate the group in crafting their own guidelines for adjusting behavior norms in new space types.

Manage unwanted noise through careful application of acoustical design tactics.
Reduce noise transmitting from the source in open areas with sound masking system.
Make speech unintelligible outside closed collaboration spaces using high quality acoustical
separation in the new environment.