Six reasons why you should rethink your office walls
The 1950s saw the rise of the open-plan office… closely followed by a little ‘privacy protector’ called the cubicle. Coincidence? Probably not, yet businesses forged on anyway; tearing down even more walls as they went. Today 70% of offices are open-plan. Meanwhile, a slew of studies is suggesting that keeping (or resurrecting) a few walls is a probably a good idea...
1 They don’t do what they were designed to do
Open-plan offices were dreamt up in a reverie of collaboration and camaraderie. But 60 years on some very telling findings are snapping us out of it. This 2013 survey of 42,000 people, for example, found that open-plan offices don’t increase interaction at all. And this study by Oxford Economics found that it isn’t just neutral outcomes that managers should be concerned about – reporting both productivity and mental clarity decrease in open-plan work environments. And, we’re not sure what you specialise in, but productivity and mental clarity tend to be pretty important things to have around an office.
The solution: Put simply: a few walls. Create designated rooms for collaboration and quiet thinking, plus spaces specifically designed for gathering in, such as a large kitchen with comfy seating, or a lounge or library.
2 Different needs for different jobs
One of the main issues with the open-plan office is that it doesn’t cater for the different types of work that needs to be done under one roof. That 2013 study we mentioned earlier found that employees in open-plan offices are often distracted by their environment. Is this any wonder if, say, you have the sales team on their phones while someone else is desperately trying to crunch numbers right next to them?
The solution: Install some soundproof booths – enclosed seating where someone can go to think and work quietly. The New Zealand-based design company, Vidak, has designed a series of these furniture pieces, such as the Retreat Booth and Huddle Collaborative Booths.
3 Different needs for different people
Extroverts make up between 50 and 74% of the population, leaving between a quarter to half of your office who instead boost their batteries with “alone time”. Spending all day every day around a mass of people is energy depleting for introverts. And even a staff full of extroverts has their own rhythms, with people taking breaks and experiencing their most productive hours at different times. The trick is to accommodate this; creating a space where those conflicting needs don’t form a persistent hum of distraction uncreatively labelled “creativity”. The trick is walls.
The solution: If you don’t have the space to erect a few walls, try a pod instead.
4 Be a team player yourself
Open-plan offices were designed to be places where ideas flowed like the metaphorical rivers employees were constantly helping each other cross. Oops. Gensler's 2016 UK Workplace Survey found that a lack of private space actually constrains creativity. Meanwhile, a recent Auckland University of Technology study found that employees who have to share their office with more than two people report high levels of distrust; forming fewer office friendships than those who often work from home, have their own office, or share a space with just one or two others. The Harvard Business Review suggests that the push for collaboration is too strong; with the time we’re spending on team tasks actually decreasing in recent years. Instead staff are begging for quiet spaces to work where they can focus on what they actually need to be doing.
The solution: A few Chat Chairs are a great space-saving alternative to a private office, giving workers somewhere quiet and comfortable to work.
5 Virtual open plan
Technology has replaced the need to have actual open offices by offering up virtual ones. Instant messaging services such as Slack allow workers to communicate and collaborate without intruding on other people’s thinking. Meanwhile, Facebook just introduced Workplace, a virtual channel where “through group discussion, a personalised News Feed and voice and video calling, you can work together and get more done”. “More done” than you would if people were calling these things out instead of typing them.
6 You can’t do everything in the open
At home, you read a book in the bath or in bed, not sitting next to a co-habitator who’s loudly entertaining a friend. So you don’t need recent research from the University of California (which found that open-plan workers experienced 29% more interruptions) to tell you that different people need different spaces at different times to do different things. It’s not rocket science – but you can bet rocket scientists have a quiet place to think.