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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Open plan offices: good, bad or ugly?

Open plan offices are not the preference of most workers, largely because they are often badly planned and executed, says Robyn Pearce. She looks at the advantages and disadvantages and considers what can be done to create effective spaces that help people work to their potential.

Tess was an events manager for a small family-owned publishing firm that specialises in the tourist market. She made a lot of phone calls to clients and prospects. Initially she was located with the rest of the staff in a large open-plan office—spacious and with plenty of room. However, Tess found the noise in the big office difficult. Finally she found a solution—she moved into a tiny office off the main room that her colleagues jokingly referred to as Tess’s “cupboard”.

Her comment to me: “I now achieve the same amount of work in four days (and sometimes more) than I used to do in five.”

Dramatic as Tess’s story is, I’ve heard thousands of variations of it ever since I began working in the productivity and time management training space 21 years ago. The thing is, open plan is not the preference of most workers, largely because most open plan environments are badly planned and executed. Result? A huge but largely invisible waste of company resources.

Am I saying open plan is all bad? Not at all—there can be benefits. But there are also many negatives—unless the space has been very well designed. However, even in good open plan offices many still struggle.

How much space does a worker need?

In the 1970s, it was considered that 500 square feet per employee was about right. By 2010, that figure had shrunk to 200 square feet per employee. And that figure continues to reduce. For example, the Property Management Centre of Expertise, a division of the Ministry of Social Development, has been tasked with reducing wasted office space. They’re working towards an occupancy goal of 12-16 square metres (about 130-172 square feet) per full-time employee. (You can download the guidelines from the Ministry of Social Development website.)

On the surface, saving space sounds like a worthy aim, but over recent years I’ve heard many horror stories from government employees who struggle with squashed and inefficient working conditions, including many in very modern Green Star-rated buildings.

I can totally support their aim to provide productive, flexible, cost-effective workspaces and I’d be the first to agree that we want our tax money used wisely. The various referenced documents, including a cost benefit analysis tool, do mention consideration of different working styles. However, since government workers in their droves are telling me they’re finding it harder and harder to work effectively, I wonder just how much the far bigger ongoing costs of wages, sick leave and lost productivity are really considered.

The problem is “productive” means different things to different people. Many people, but especially introverts—and they’re close to 50 percent of the workforce—struggle to function effectively when they’re pushed into open plan spaces. Such layout only works well with very careful design and plenty of alternatives for different purposes and working styles.

So what are the benefits of open plan?

The big driver for this change is financial: reduced expensive floor space, lower cost of fitout. Also, for those who need to quickly consult with colleagues or where teams are working on the same or similar projects, time can be saved by over-hearing conversations. They can then contribute on an ad hoc basis when issues arise.

There is supposed to be more openness of communication—although research doesn’t prove that conclusively. In fact, there are reports that people share less when pushed into a proximity that’s not natural to them.

What about the disadvantages?

The big disadvantage is interruptions. No matter how clever we are, if we’re constantly interrupted by “walk-ups” to our desk we never reach a state of “flow”—and many open-plan “sufferers” report that they never have more than a few minutes between interruptions.

Obviously there’s a lack of privacy. And noise is a major issue. Unless the site has sound-proofed furniture, walls, ceilings and floors there’s constant noise.

At a deep neurological level, quieter people struggle to work in close quarters with others; people with hearing defects struggle to hear, due to the noise of their fellow workers; and I’ve yet to find a sales person who likes making calls with others around them. Plus the unfortunates sitting nearby don’t want to be involved with the conversations either.

Then there’s ill-health. Sickness is more easily spread due to proximity, and in many companies there’s a higher turnover of staff due to unhappiness with working conditions.

I strongly recommend that you read Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that won’t stop talking. From her book: “A mountain of recent data …. [shows] that open plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about co-workers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subjected to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol, the body’s fight-or-flight ‘stress’ hormone; and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others.”

Add all these issues together and you’ve got a very expensive problem, for staffing cost is the biggest expense for almost all organisations.

What does a good open plan office look like?

A good open plan office will have excellent sound-proofing, activity-based areas where people can work in a manner that’s relevant to the activity, and a layout that affords privacy and quietness when anyone needs it. It will have plenty of quiet rooms with good equipment so anyone can work alone when they need silence or privacy, small meeting rooms as well as larger ones, and well-designed furniture that incorporates sound-proofing where appropriate, such as headhigh screens with fabric to absorb sound.

It will also have flexibility so that when needs change, the space and furniture can be reorganised and reconfigured.

And it will “feel” nice to work in. There will be enough open space that people don’t feel crowded. For example, the Meridian building on the Quay in Wellington (which I was given a tour of recently) has many of these features. It’s quiet, has a feeling of spaciousness, there’s plenty of opportunity for privacy, and it seems very well designed.

I’m still to view them, but I’m told the new ASB and Lion offices in Auckland are also carefully designed and the staff I’ve spoken to are very happy with them, despite initial misgivings about giving up their personal spaces. This is because they’ve been designed from an activity-based perspective, with different locations for the various functions and tasks.

How modern technology helps

If individual space has been reduced, in some cases taking away the “ownership” of a dedicated space, effective companies have high-level technology and plenty of digital storage capacity to support the workers.

Once a document is received it is scanned or, if it’s a working document, once finished with it also is scanned rather than filed in a physical filing cabinet. If documentation is digitally stored, the location of the workers is, for most roles, not that important. They might be working at home with no interruptions, on a different floor in the building, or having a meeting at a near-by café.

The other really useful equipment is Follow Me printing machines. The user sends a document to print and then, armed with their own printer swipe card, downloads the document at whichever printer they choose.

What do bad open plan offices look like?

Like a battery hen farm—human style! They mostly have low partitions over which noise travels, meeting rooms with inadequate sound-proofing and hard noisy floors and ceilings that bounce sound around. Often there aren’t enough quiet rooms or meeting rooms. Some desks face walkways and traffic flow—with the loss of anything between 30 minutes to an hour per day just due to interruptions from passers-by.

Workers are jammed in together with no opportunity for privacy when they need it. Some are located too close to high traffic flow areas—the tea room, toilets, photocopier or reception. And people constantly complain that they can’t work without interruption at any task requiring focus and concentration.

One New Zealand media company has recently moved into new premises which are light and bright, but which have been labelled dysfunctional. For example, editorial staff are right next to sales teams and struggle constantly to concentrate. Meeting rooms are all glass, even to the point of having glass panels in the ceiling where people on the floor above at the coffee machine can peer down into the meeting rooms. Even standing at reception, the casual observer has the sense that the occupants are working in a fishbowl.

In an open plan office with even a few of these features described, the frustration factor of many workers is enormous—and they tell their stories with stress and distress. Many can’t wait to move to another company.

Let’s look at the dollars

The thing to consider is this: is it really a cost-saver? There is constant research going on but so far I’ve seen nothing that convinces me of the financial savings—if the cost of interruptions and turnover are taken into account. Wages are the biggest cost in almost all businesses.

How many people, when planning a new office layout, take into account the lost opportunity cost of interruptions?

But if introverts need quiet and solitude to develop their thoughts and tap into their creativity, what happens? We reduce the potential of close to half the people in most work teams.

For more information on this topic, check out

Robyn Pearce (known as the Time Queen) runs an international time management and productivity company, operating from New Zealand. Get your free report “How To Master Time In Only 90 Seconds” and ongoing time tips at

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