Finally, the Open-Plan Office Is Dead (Almost)

At last, the open-plan office is nearing its end. Here's why the research shows us that's something we should celebrate.

The year 2020 will live long in our memories.

While we may struggle to recall its days, which seemingly blurred into one another, our memories will inscribe it as the year we confronted a global pandemic.

For some, that will mean an indelible mark as a year of tragedy and loss. But for the many fortunate, it will be the year in which we spent a disproportional amount of time in our homes, gratefully protecting ourselves and loved ones. It will be the year cohabitation took on all new meaning. The year we embraced the virtual world like never before.

And in the forced confrontation of this new way of living, we will reflect on one of its most significant side effects. For hundreds of millions of workers across the world, 2020 will be the year in which we unintentionally revolutionised the office. The year in which support for the disastrous concept of open-plan offices was finally killed off.

The Purported Benefits of Open-Plan Offices

Truth be told, perhaps “revolution” is a stretch.

Those close to the research have known for some time that our excessive emphasis on corporate collaboration simply hasn’t produced the expected results. But before we get to that, it’s worth recapping how most of us office workers ended up in the open-plan model in the first place.

The original intention was clear. By breaking down walls, we would provide a symbol of open communication, removing the sense of hierarchy that stopped us from collaborating. In turn, open-plan offices would foster greater transparency and creativity. Employee morale would rise from increased interactions and our productivity would thrive.

At least, that’s part of the story.

The more complete supporting narrative weighs in on the costs. Bottom line: open-plan offices are cheaper. Not only do they give companies more space for their money, but their employees simply absorb less space. Less individual offices mean less space occupied per employee.

Hey presto, the open-plan model was a “win-win”. Companies would save on office costs and increase their productivity. What wasn’t to like?

The Downsides of Open-Plan Offices

There was just one problem: most of that was nonsense.

As it turns out, chatting with Susan from Procurement opposite is nice for about 10 minutes, but then you realise you best get back to work. Trouble is, the conversation between Michael and Adam from Finance is in earshot about 5 metres away, and further down the production line of desks, you can hear Gill laughing away in HR. Why does she laugh like that?

After a few days, there’s only one thing for it. You purchase some noise-cancelling headphones. But only a few others are doing that. Now you’re one of them: depleting your “personal brand” to get the job done.

Even then, the noise-cancelling headphones aren’t enough. They help a bit with the sound, but they don’t blind you. Susan is still gesticulating like a mad woman and people are walking by all day.

What’s more, Steve just tapped you on the shoulder. It seems he hasn’t got the message that you’re busy. “Are you on a call?” he mouths while making that annoying phone gesture with his little finger and thumb. Why do people do that?

“No, Steve. I’m just – you know – working…” you think to yourself before actually responding. “No, no, what’s up, Steve?”

You wrap up some small talk and add his ask to your to-do list – which, by the way, is increasingly something that you address early in the morning or late in the evening.

Headphones back on. Work time.

And, right on cue… Outlook notification. Time for another meeting.

Welcome to the open-plan office.

The Research on Open-Plan Offices

Granted, not all open-plan offices are like this. Only most of them.

Indeed, an increasing body of research seems to support this view. Here are some of the key themes that frequently come up in the research:

#1: Reduced privacy. Moving from an individual office or cellular office structure to an open-plan office invariably means less perceived and physical privacy. This is supported by studies that have surveyed workers before and after open-plan office moves.

#2: Reduced productivity. Reduced privacy in turn undermines performance. In addition, it is well established that increases in surrounding noise impair task performance, memory and productivity. Psychologists call this cognitive impact the “irrelevant speech effect”.

#3: Adverse health impacts. In a comprehensive review of the literature on office design and health in 2017, a group of researchers from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand Higher concluded that “shared or open-plan office space is not beneficial to employees’ health”. The review suggests a consistent adverse impact on health, including higher stress levels, blood pressure, and staff absence and turnover.

#4: Lower employee satisfaction. As a result, it’s not surprising that employee satisfaction suffers. Numerous longitudinal studies have consistently drawn the link between new open-plan workspaces and decreased job satisfaction and motivation.

#5: Lower face-to-face interaction. Perhaps the final academic nail in the coffin came in 2018. Two Harvard researchers looked at how interaction levels changed when corporate headquarters were moved to more open office spaces. Contrary to idea that these spaces increase collaboration, they appeared to do the opposite. Face-to-face interactions decreased by approximately 70% and electronic communications increased. Far from a natural flow of interaction, the open-plan model seemed to cause workers to socially withdraw.

The Rise of Virtual Work

It would be foolish to assume these disadvantages apply universally. Of course, there are some open-plan offices that produce the desired effects on collaboration and innovation. This is as much about culture and informal rules that respect privacy and solitude.

But broadly speaking, the research is overwhelming. This argument can even be extended further to all the positive cognitive effects of environments that foster some degree of solitude, but I won’t labour the point.

In broad terms, the bottom line is this: open-plan offices are an epic failure. When measured against the purported benefits, the research suggests we are left with just one advantage: the cost savings.

That, of course, was already being challenged by the rise of virtual work. And then came along 2020.

Those fortunate enough to be able to continue working from home without financial impacts have done what they could have done for the last decade had they been permitted.

They have worked from home. They have cut out killer commutes. And they have proven they can be equally (and probably more) productive working from the comfort of their own homes.

At last, the unprecedented circumstances have provoked a credible challenge to the last standing advantage of open-plan offices.

Like a powerful laxative, 2020 has loosened the trapped waste of an archaic office life and pushed it where it belongs. Now all we must do is press the flush.

The Future of the Office

That, unfortunately, isn’t going to be instantaneous for several reasons.

First, it will take time to unwind infrastructure. Companies are tied into office leases over many years. Unwinding these physical spaces therefore doesn’t happen overnight – or even in a year.

Second, now is not the ideal time to measure productivity impacts. While it’s likely that this impact is understated as parents contend with virtual working and childcare, only the bravest will immediately make the permanent leap to home working for their employees during such volatile times.

And third, it’s simply not going to be so black and white. Some of us want and need to be in the office. Virtual working foregoes those social interactions and collaborative meetings that can’t be replaced via conference call.

In the short term, all businesses will need to look at their offices to accommodate social distancing rules. But in the medium term, there is no question that businesses are already looking at more sweeping changes.

These changes are likely to weigh up a balance of the aforementioned factors. Expect more working from home, coupled with the opportunity to use shared office space for collaboration. And expect companies to cash in on lower footfall by downsizing their physical spaces, or even by pooling offices with other businesses.

These cost savings will follow the inevitably difficult economic trajectory ahead, as will savings on headcount. That’s just how it works.

But before that, we will return in waves. From two metres apart, we will still be able to hear every word of our colleague’s conference call. But it will be different.

For those companies ready to take the brave leap into the 21st century, it may be the last hurrah for the open-plan office as we know it. And then, not long after, perhaps the open-plan office will finally die.

I say good riddance.

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