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Which part of open plan didn't they hear?

Which part of open plan didn’t they hear?

There has been a lot of media coverage about a Harvard report that suggested open plan office designs are reducing collaboration. Many commentators have jumped on the ‘open plan is bad’ bandwagon while others have highlighted the deficiencies in Harvard’s data collection and assumptions. Evoke Projects has looked at the arguments and believes that both sides can be ‘right’ because there are pros and cons of open plan working. It’s the planning and execution of the office fit-out that makes the difference.

Harvard study

The Harvard Business School and Harvard University studied people who switched from individual cubicles to an open office design. They found that people spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, 67% more time on email and 75% more time on instant messenger.1 Obviously, this isn’t what companies want to hear after investing in a new open plan office fit-out or office refurbishment.

Critics of the study point to a small sample size, the assumptions made about the increase in virtual messages and the restrictive definition of ‘face to face interaction’. Interaction was measured by sensors looking for direct facing communication with nothing interfering with line of sight. It did not count two people sitting side by side at a desk and talking about something on screen as interaction. Even a laptop or low partition between two people could interfere with the sensor’s line of sight.2

Will anything change for future office fit-outs?

The cost savings for businesses that switch to open plan office fit-outs are significant. As well as fewer square metres in real estate costs, lighting, heating and cooling run more economically in open plan office designs. In these days of leaner business operations, it would be naïve to think that cubicles and private offices will start making a come-back….

What businesses are realising, however, is that open plan is two words, with more emphasis needed on the word ‘plan’. The magic of open plan offices is still happening for companies that embrace this. Every day, skilled office designers and workplace strategists are creating agile high-functioning office fit-outs and refurbishments that cater to the individual needs of workers, while enhancing collaboration and saving dollars on the bottom line.

Quiet spaces within open plan office fit-outs

Most commentators recommend that there are quiet spaces within the open plan office environment. However, adding a certain proportion of quiet spaces within the office design is missing the point. Office designs that are built around the specific workflows and activities of a business will look different for every business. Getting the balance right between zones (open, quiet, collaborative) can increase motivation and productivity far beyond what insular private offices will ever achieve.

It’s also important to recognise that it is the task that requires a quiet space, not the person. If people can move around to the zone that best suits their current task, they will be supported in all aspects of their work.

Dynamic open plan office designs

Open plan may conjure up images of rows and rows of desks, but it can be so much more, or less… Many companies make the office design dynamic, personalised and interesting by using the ‘neighbourhood’ concept to give people a sense of belonging. The neighbourhood office design has clusters of open plan workstations surrounded by quiet areas and collaborative zones. Low partitions enable the flow of light and communication, while each neighbourhood is a team hub where people feel anchored to a safe personalised place.

WELL Building Standard

The WELL Building Standard(tm) (WELL) supports office fit-out plans that promote health and well-being through best practice office design. WELL can help guide businesses on the specifics of light, air, sound and materials usage that will make an open plan office design truly work for productivity and optimum health.

Have you seen the blinkers?

For employees who like their privacy or are easily irritated by noise, rules about daily quiet times can be useful, where conversations and telephone calls are kept to a minimum. Acoustic screens and desk layouts that minimise eye contact are also helpful.

While we applaud any company for seizing an opportunity, the Wear Space device invented by Panasonic to help people focus in an open plan office is truly awful in our opinion.3 It’s no surprise that the device has been dubbed human ‘blinkers’!4

And while we’re talking about blinkers, let’s not put on proverbial blinkers that stop us from keeping an open mind about open plan! The best of both worlds is certainly possible with the right office design firm. Talk to Evoke Projects about planning an office fit-out or office refurbishment that will work for your team. Please call us on 1300 720 692.


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