Debunking the Open Office Backlash


The debate thickens. 

As open office design flourishes, many theorists continue to wrangle the pros and cons of the open planning style.  Most recently, a study from two Harvard academics adds fuel to the fire for open office skeptics.  The study suggests that open office plans actually decrease face-to-face interaction and increase electronic communication.  Quite the paradox considering the ultimate strategy behind open office planning is to enhance the connection to peers and boost spontaneous collaboration.  But when two separate groups of workers from different organizations were hooked up with Bluetooth enabled badges and microphones prior to and after moving from an enclosed office space to a completely open workspace, the findings reveal a 73% drop in face-to-face interaction.  These workers’ electronic communication habits were also examined during the same time frame and exposed a 67% increase use of email and 75% spike in instant messaging. 

Well, there goes open office integrity out the door, right?

Think again.

What this study does not validate are all the other factors that influence workers’ behavior when shifting to an open office plan.  A workspace has many dimensions beyond a desk and chair.  Consider these viable components before imparting scrutiny. 

Screen Shot 2018-08-23 at 10.26.40 AM.png

What does the workspace look like?

Yes, a wide open floorplan filled merely with long tables and chairs is a recipe for disaster when considering workers’ productivity.  But thoughtful design integrating benching tables, focus rooms, huddle spaces and alternative work zones can alleviate the pressure of performing diverse tasks in one conventional setting.  The average worker spends the day bearing different cognitive loads, whether it's concentrating on a document, researching a topic, developing an idea, meeting with peers, or talking on the phone.  For this reason, it is essential to provide a variety of spaces to accommodate specialized tasks. 

And how these spaces are configured is another element to bear in mind.  Creating neighborhoods of open desking delineated by enclosed spaces, such as phone booths and meetings rooms, not only minimizes the breadth of exposure but also provides equal access to all employees yearning for that balance of collaborative and solo work.


What does the workspace sound like?

Noise disruption is the number one complaint of open office design.  Connection, transparency, collaboration…. call it what you want, but definitely don’t call it quiet.  Eliminating walls may increase peer awareness, but it is also detrimental to sound management.   Don’t let that be the end all, however, as there are many design tactics to control sound in a barrier-free environment.  Most noteworthy are the ABC’s of acoustic design.

Absorb – Utilize materials that contain absorptive qualities such as ceiling tiles with high NRC ratings, carpet flooring, and various acoustic wall treatments & accessories.  Check out, Turf, a company whose mission is “to address the distracting echo of open spaces by providing acoustic solutions that are both remarkably effective at turning down the noise and visually stunning to entertain the soul.”  Designing a space that absorbs sound instead of reflecting sound is a clever yet effective approach to neutralizing sound transmission.

Block – Although walls and panels have diminished, there is still an opportunity to block noise in an open plan.  As mentioned before, allocating shared enclosed spaces such as phone booths and meetings room within an expanse of open office design can help mitigate the transfer of sound.  Consequently, locating enclosed rooms in close proximity to all users can be a handy refuge for those who lack vocal volume control.

Cover – A simple approach to covering noise is implementing sound masking in the workspace.  By adding ambient background noise that matches the frequency of human speech, noise distractions are reduced, speech privacy is protected, and office comfort is increased.  Not only does sound masking make speech noise less intelligible and ultimately less distracting, it also provides a constant hum to the office space that otherwise becomes unnervingly silent during low peaks of the workday.


What does the workspace feel like?

No reference to the actual tactile quality of the space, but more the culture and attitude that is felt by employees.  Shifting to an open plan environment can be a daunting experience for employees.  But if organizations properly prepare users for the change by explaining the vision, presenting the opportunities, and establishing protocols and behaviors for employees to adopt, acceptance of the work environment has much higher odds. 

Employees ultimately want to feel valued.  So, when a personal workspace is reduced, workers tend to assume a “what’s in it for me” mentality.  Simple efforts such as providing high functioning ergonomic task chairs, or allocating desk accessories and storage options for users to personalize their space, or equipping workspaces with techy gadgets like dual monitor arms and charging ports is a practical way to appease employees.  Larger investments including cutting-edge amenity spaces like barista bars, yoga rooms, outdoor patios, and on-site micro-markets can also energize company spirit and instill feelings of value and appreciation.


Open plan workplaces definitely have their shortcomings.  And yes, companies will struggle with managing noise, communication modes, and productivity.  But the open office plan is not dying anytime soon.  Workplace planning structures will continue to evolve especially with the upsurge of coworking spaces and flexible work models, but in some form or fashion, open office design will prevail.   Integrating thoughtful design objectives that address the look, sound, and feel of these spaces will undoubtedly resuscitate the integrity of open office design.

Michelle EckhartComment