The Open-concept Office Paradox

Open Offices | BCBusiness

New research says open-concept layouts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, so why are we still building them?

Open-concept offices are the new norm for progressive and collaborative workplaces, but dissenting voices are sprouting up everywhere. A recent New Yorker blog cites studies dating back to 1997 that blame open-plan offices for employee dissatisfaction and lost productivity. According to the New Yorker, one psychologist concludes that increased distraction actually “impairs workers’ ability to recall information, and even to do basic arithmetic.” Recent blogs from Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review commiserate with a December 2013 University of Sydney study that finds a direct correlation between worker unhappiness and the noise and lack of privacy related to open offices.

“Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction,” reads the conclusion of the Sydney study.

Research aside, local design and architecture firms continue to champion the open layout. Sarah Hollett, senior interior designer and project manager for Yaletown-based firm Counterpoint Interiors Inc., is a staunch supporter, citing a positive impact on office culture, equality and team collaboration. Counterpoint recently made-over its own space, ditching cubicles for an open layout with ergonomic workstations. “It’s been night and day,” says Hollett. “I’ve been able to get to know my co-workers on a way deeper level—I’ve been able to collaborate with them instantly.” Going from semi-private cubicles to an open concept forced employees to establish boundaries and mutual respect, which Hollett says opened the communication lines. Fewer walls and doors mean more sunlight for staff and more workstations in smaller spaces, and open plans facilitate a more inviting corporate culture.

Three Terms You Need to Know About the Future of Office Work

Hot desking: Logging into any computer workstation that is available at any time throughout the day.

Hotelling: Reserving a workstation ahead of time or when you arrive at the office in the morning.

Telecommuting: Watching House of Cards in your pajamas with your computer in your lap.

From an employer’s perspective, open concepts also offer the promise of cost savings, and in markets such as Vancouver, where office real estate is at a premium, it’s not likely that companies will be rebuilding walls and installing doors anytime soon. Hollett says 75 per cent of the commercial office work at Counterpoint is converting offices from traditional cubicles and closed doors into open plans. Most recently, she worked as lead designer on 11 floors of an insurance company’s downtown Vancouver corporate headquarters, removing all walls. “Nobody was allowed to have a closing door,” says Hollett. “It’s their policy throughout all their headquarters throughout Canada.” There is still a hierarchy, but rather than big bosses having closed-door offices, they have bigger open spaces with more furniture.

Hollett adds that her company’s client list includes insurance companies, gaming corporations and forestry heavyweights, all increasingly embracing open plans. “I think big corporate has changed,” she says. “There’s a real shut-down, closed-minded vibe about the old-school offices.”

Hollett acknowledges that noise levels, interruptions and loss of privacy are concerns with open layouts, but says combatting these changes depends on finding balance in the space, using design elements like sound-absorbing flooring and mixing shared sound-proof areas into the open layouts for meetings and private calls. “Those can still be created without having drywalls put up and it being really closed off,” she says. “It can be glass.”

Increased collaboration may not outweigh the downside of increased disruption in open plans, but in employers’ eyes that’s clearly not worth losing sleep over.