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Open-plan offices: boundless design or bad for business?

Open plan offices: boundless design or bad for business?

Being part of the world of marketing and advertising, you encounter certain clichés. Table tennis, Friday beers, inventively named meeting rooms – all perfectly harmless aspects that are part and parcel of working the industry. It could be argued that open-plan offices are one of these nice, innocuous things. They’re light, airy and egalitarian after all, but there’s a growing body of evidence that argues they’re not quite as beneficial as believed.

When and why did open-plan offices become popular?

To understand open-plan offices and their effects, let’s go back to when they were first conceived. Believe it or not, the first open-plan office dates back to 1906 – New York’s Larkin Administration Building, designed by Frank Lloyd-Wright.

Made to mimic the atmosphere of a factory floor, the open-plan concept was given a dose of pizzazz by the late thirties, when Lloyd Wright’s advocacy of the benefits of large, boundless spaces was filtering into flashy corporate workplaces such as the Johnson Wax Headquarters, designed in 1939.

It was a beautiful idea that challenged hierarchies and encouraged interaction, and one that plenty of companies copied (though often not due to the vision, but because it was a lot cheaper than building lots of rooms for employees). Sadly though, many businesses started trying to fit more and more desks into their open-plan offices, making them rather monotonous, classroom-like and overly public spaces to work in.

Only rarely did businesses take steps to rectify these issues – such as adopting the Quickborner group’s more fluid, natural and contemporary Office Landscape school of design thought – despite employees finding open-plans difficult to work in, more stressful and less private than smaller, closed offices. When open office forms finally evolved to provide privacy and quiet, out spawned cubicles, first designed by Robert Propst in 1967 as part of the Action Office II concept; a somewhat contradictory title apparent to anyone looking out over a sad sea of identikit cubicles.

People didn’t like silent, impersonal cubicle offices, and they became synonymous with the poor labour practices, unfulfilling careers and faceless corporatism criticised in late twentieth century pop culture.

That’s why, to the booming tech companies of the nineties and noughties, cubicles were the first thing to go – they symbolised repetitive, boring work that respected, not upended, existing boundaries.

The likes of Google and Apple were firm proponents of busy, stimulating and ever-so-slightly erratic environs that would foster innovation, and everyone else followed suit. Most decision-makers were too young to remember the the first open-office heyday and downfall, and if they were, the new, rabid hype surrounding open-plan gave them a chance to jump on the bandwagon and save up to 20% in office décor costs.

What does the research say?

Today, the UK has double the number of open-plan offices as the global average, and there’s growing disquiet against them in the online press, partly down to recent research that has cast a negative light on the popular layout.

Firstly, it’s been found that open-plan offices are quite good at making workers feel unhappy. A large-scale 2009 review of academic literature surrounding open-plan offices discovered that 90% of their conclusions were negative, with the design causing stress, conflict, high blood pressure and increased staff turnover. The authors, from the Queensland University of Technology, also expressed alarm at the number of papers that referenced increased illness rates thanks to transmission being so much easier in open environments – something anyone who’s worked in an open indoor space in flu season can certainly relate to.

But at least people talk to one other more in open-plans, right? Alas, it seems not – a 2018 paper from Harvard Business School found that open offices reduced employee interactions by up to an enormous 70%, with electronic interactions replacing just 20-50% of the lost interaction.

The authors put it nicely: “Many organizations… transform their office architectures into open spaces with the intention of creating more… interaction and thus a more vibrant work environment. What they often get… is an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones) while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”

So, are open-plan offices completely terrible?

Not completely. The basic idea behind them is that they allow employees to see and hear what’s going on around them and contribute accordingly. For businesses primarily involved with creating new products and chasing new innovations, it makes sense to create sweeping spaces where employees can work in such a way – and open-plan offices are the obvious choice.

But people need to focus, and research has found that if they can’t, the frequency of their interactions is reduced. Even Google employees need to step away from their ideation hoverboard sessions and do some work from time to time, and this is where closed offices excel – perfect for concentration-heavy and team-based work, where people need to think and work in step with one another.

What plan is the Fox den?

The way we see, it answer is pretty simple – offer both.

Our offices have rooms accommodating four to eight people in each, and while they might have tall ceilings and be in an vast ex-mansion, we’re not afflicted with 25 peoples’-worth of noise echoing around all day because, well, we’re not averse to a door or two.

And if people need to work in teams or dream up new, amazing ideas, we’ve got lots of large meeting rooms to call on, letting new work commence without everyone else’s being interrupted. Oh, and we’ve invested in lots of plants too – learn why.