The debate about open plan design rages on. Who’s right?

by Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace AnalyticsSeptember 2018 — “…Open Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time.”[1]

“Yet another open office study proclaims the benefits of the format.”[2]

Well, which is it?

Actually, both.

The debate about the benefits or failures of “open plan” may have more to do with language issues than workplace issues.

For some people, “open” means tearing down the walls, installing benches, and giving workers the option to sit wherever they want—as long as it’s somewhere in the big open space. Organizations that adopt this approach promote it with messaging such as:

“See how pretty?”

“Isn’t the light great?”

“Won’t it be fun to just look up and see all your colleagues right there with you?”

“We’re even giving you spiffy headphones, so you concentrate.”

“And think of the money we’ll save!”

In other organizations, “open plan” represents just one part of an ecosystem of workspaces that allow people to work wherever they want to or need to. Want to collaborate? Head over to one of the social or meeting spaces with your team? Need to concentrate? Try the library, a quiet zone, or a pod. Need some inspiration? Take a walk around the green space, do some downward dogging in the gym, or harmonize your Chakras in the meditation room.

These two versions of an “open plan” office couldn’t be more different.

So how can you judge for yourself? Ignore the headlines. They only add to the cacophony. Instead, turn your eyes inward and observe/consider:

  • The kind of work people are actually doing and where they’re doing it
  • Who interacts with whom and how often
  • What spaces are being used, by whom, and for what purpose
  • What spaces are not being used and why not
  • How the occupant mix is likely to change in the next five to ten years

Chances are, you will find about seven different kinds of activities that need to be supported. To make things tidy, let’s call them the Seven C’s (with one ‘I’):

  • Concentrate
  • Contemplate
  • Collaborate
  • Create
  • Innovate
  • Converse
  • Commune
  • Caffeinate/Consume

Figure 1, Work Activities

Figure 1, Work Activities: The Seven C’s offers general guidelines about the kinds of environments that best support each activity. Though not intended to be hard and fast rules, it is based on a wide range of research much of which is summarized in “Applying what scientists know about where and how people work best,” a publication sponsored by the Workplace Evolutionaries Community of Practice within IFMA (see References below).

Spaces for concentration and focus should be low on distractions, predictable, and safe. Occupants should able to customize the temperature, lighting, sound, and ergonomics for their comfort. Biophilia has been shown to improve concentration. Since the work is relatively static, the ability to move around isn’t critical, but privacy and psychological safety is. Private offices, distraction-free privacy booths or pods, libraries, and home offices are good choices for this type of work.

Spaces for contemplation and thinking should also be low on distractions but should offer more opportunities for movement (e.g., pacing around, changing positions). Access to nature, outdoor views, and biophilia can improve cognitive function. Users should be able to control their environment for sound preferences, temperature, and lighting. Quiet rooms, outdoor spaces, window facing pods, and walking trails are good choices for this kind of work.

Collaborative spaces should offer the ability to move around, customize the environment, and provide stimulation. Privacy is still important, but in these spaces, it’s about group privacy. Meeting rooms or areas and offsite locations are good choices for this type of work.

Creativity and innovation are not the same thing and, according to recent research, both are essential, but they flourish in very different environments (see Recommended Reading).[3] Creative ideas tend to surface in private, quiet environments (e.g., while driving, in the shower, during a walk). Those ideas are best vetted and turned into innovations in group settings, particularly when people from different disciplines come together.

Spaces for conversation need to be quiet enough to hear one another and private enough to feel safe. Some discussions will require more privacy than others. Small meeting rooms best accommodate the latter, but social spaces, nooks, and small table areas can work for less private conversations provided they offer effective sound masking.

Community spaces are important for bonding, cultural reinforcement, and organization-wide events. If effectively designed, they can also accommodate training needs. These spaces should visually reinforce organizational values, inspire a sense of purpose, facilitate celebration, and support training. In some places, cafeterias can serve a dual purpose here.

Caffeination spaces satisfy the need for fuel, hydration, and caffeination, and can also be an important locus for serendipitous encounters, employee bonding, conversation, collaboration, and for some, even concentration. A Nobel Prize-winning physicist claims he did is best work in, um, well, places that would definitely be on the NSFW4 list these days.

Open plan is not inherently bad. But when it’s rolled out as a one-size-fits-all solution, it will take its toll in terms of work quality, productivity, collaboration, employee stress, workplace satisfaction and more.

Regardless of what you call it, the only thing that’s clear is that you’re never going to find that Goldilocks solution, the one that’s “just right” for everyone.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

Optimizing the Workplace for Innovation: Using Brain Science for Smart Design, Beck Johnson, Haworth, Inc. 2017

Workplace Evolutionaries’ WEbinar: Optimizing the Workplace for Innovation: Using Brain Science for Smart Design, Beck Johnson

Applying what scientists know about where and how people work best, Sally Augustin, Ph.D., IFMA Foundation & Workplace Evolutionaries, 2014

Kate Lister is president of Global Workplace Analytics (GWA), a research-based consulting firm that helps organizations quantify the impact of workplace change on productivity, employee well-being, and other critical people and business metrics. She is an active member of IFMA’s Workplace Evolutionaries’ leadership and research teams. She resides in San Diego CA and charges clients extra if she has to travel anywhere that’s too cold, too hot, too humid, or too buggy.

[1] It’s Official: Open Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time, Inc. magazine, July 16, 2018

[2] Yet another open office study proclaims the benefits of the format,, August 23, 2018

[3] Optimizing the Workplace for Innovation: Using Brain Science for Smart Design

Workplace Evolutionaries’ (WE’s) mission is to “change the world one workplace at a time.” It’s a global community of over a thousand professionals who care deeply about the world of work and where it’s going. Among its members are workplace strategists, change managers, facilities managers, architects, designers, HR professionals, IT managers, academics, and product and service providers. WE members enjoy three conferences a year, monthly WEbinars with thought leaders from around the world, a monthly round-up of the best workplace research and news, white papers, and a vehicle for connecting with fellow evolutionaries around the world. WE is a global Community of Practice within the International Facility Management Association.