The reality of open office environments

Love them or loathe them, open-plan office designs have been enthusiastically promoted for decades. But do they deliver the productivity and morale benefits they promised? A 2019 Harvard Business Review article reported that although open-plan offices were intended to boost face-to-face interaction, they can reduce it by 70%.

The Reality of Open Office Environments

Love them or loathe them, open office environments have been enthusiastically promoted in their evolving formats for decades. With fewer cutbacks left to feed cost-efficiency, productivity became the new buzz word. Collaboration, knowledge sharing and teamwork gained ever increasing prominence.

Clearly, the way to encourage this new style of working would be to get people out of their individual offices and into shared open spaces. Only then would interactions happen with ease and the feeling of being part of a team become impossible to miss.

Seeking to develop the new team culture, HR leaders were welcomed with open arms by their colleagues in corporate real estate. Why? Because you can fit a lot more people into a much smaller floor area when each person’s space is the size of a small desk. Ongoing office expenses – like rent, lighting, air conditioning and cleaning costs – all plummet.

The initial cubicle walls became lower and lower, then disappeared completely. Long tables became the norm with no drawers or trays required for the now-obsolete stationery. Ironically, offices looked more and more like the vast typing pools of the 1970s, where any conversing or collaboration was sternly discouraged.

Hot desking and flexibility around where and when you worked soon followed, allowing the number of seats required on any given day to reduce even further. Online productivity and communication tools kept everyone connected. Some companies did away with offices altogether, particularly after Covid-19 restrictions helped to show what was possible. Why pay for office space when people are happy to provide their own?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s rewind to a few years before the pandemic, when in-depth quantitative research into open-plan offices began to reveal what was really going on. It’s not all bad news. In fact, it provides valuable insights into how to design and manage office environments to get the best from your team.

Measuring office interactions

Sophisticated tracking devices and mass data analysis have been used to measure how different office layouts and online tools affect employee interactions. Sensors in seats, swipe cards and phones can track individual movements. Video can record face-to-face interactions and who they’re between. Meta data from communication tools can be used to measure and map online interactions. All this must be done with appropriate privacy rules and employee consent, of course.

People still control their interactions

A 2019 Harvard Business Review article reported that although open-plan offices were intended to boost face-to-face interaction, they can reduce it by 70%. Online communications however, increase significantly. This research supported what many people had suspected for some time.

After moving to an open office, people quickly find ways to control interactions to suit their own needs. It has been described as creating a virtual wall, so you can focus on your work without distractions.

Common techniques include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Wearing headphones, preferably the noise cancelling type
  • Becoming selectively deaf, while pretending it’s because you’re so absorbed in your work
  • Showing non-verbal displeasure at being interrupted – big sigh, eye roll, tense face etc.
  • Heading to the bathroom or a hot desk to avoid being drawn into a discussion

On the other hand, the ever-increasing range of online communication tools gives people far more influence over how and when they interact. They allow people to control when the interaction occurs, how long it might take and who else might be involved. They also let people decide whether they’ll respond immediately, wait until it’s convenient or not get involved at all.

Process-driven office design

Other research found that most face-to-face interactions take place within a limited radius or between people on the same floor. This highlights the importance of identifying the useful and productive interactions you want to promote, then co-locating the people involved. You could also consider physically separating teams that don’t need to interact.

Each organisation will have its most productive interaction patterns, often aligned with their unique workflows.  Some roles require close interaction within their team, while others work independently but interact primarily with people in other teams. Co-location can also be short-term, such as bringing an inter-departmental project team together. This can streamline the group’s collaboration while shielding them from their home-team conversations.

Experimentation helps

Some organisations choose to pilot a proposed new environment, rather than jumping straight to full implementation. This can pay dividends by revealing that the expected benefits don’t exist or by identifying opportunities to modify the design. It can also provide proven benefits to reassure the rest of the organisation ahead of their move.

It pays to allow time for the true outcomes to become apparent. For example, one organisation was initially delighted that a pilot move to open-plan led to more interaction between departments. People were going directly to the source to get the information they needed, rather than through their manager or at team meetings. This was clearing a known communication bottle-neck. However, six months later a drop in productivity became apparent and customer complaints were on the rise. It turned out that the managers and team meetings were better for enabling better work and greater efficiency after all. In addition, some people struggled with colleagues coming to them whenever it suited and began hiding out in a local café to get their own work done. The change was abandoned and the pilot group returned to fixed seating by team. Only a small amount of open space was retained.

Small changes may be all you need

Encouraging the right interactions doesn’t always require a major change to the seating environment. Mobile whiteboards have proven successful in giving small groups a more productive level of isolation within an existing open-plan environment.

Another option is the strategic location of shared spaces or natural interaction points. Putting a water cooler, coffee machine or relaxation area between team areas can help create interactions that bring the teams together, without creating major upheaval.

How you manage the change is the key

The success of any new office design can have as much to do with how people feel about the space as the design itself. Some specialists call it place identity. Here are some tips to help ensure your people feel proud of their new work environment and want to make it work.

  • Communicate the vision and how it supports your organisation’s  goals, well before any change
  • Listen to feedback on how the design might be improved to better support people’s work and values
  • Ensure leaders speak positively about the environment once you’re in it
  • Help people to adapt the environment to their needs and allow some personalisation

Check out an easy way to reward your employees for productivity.