11 July 2019/ Guides

8 solutions to open-plan office issues

Appropriate planning can mitigate problems and create a collaborative space that works for everyone

Noise. Lack of privacy. No sense of personal space. No ability to focus. Funny smells. Messy colleagues and their trinkets. Colleagues with quirky tendencies. Trending viral videos. Headphones and Slack. Open-plan offices have been getting a bad rap these days, as public opinion and sensationalised news stories emphasise negative aspects of the design. The debate over the open office trend is being discussed in informational articles like this from The Washington Post and examined throughin-depth research studies. But why did this trend become so popular if it is so problematic?

A recent Inc.com article actually turns the tables on the assumed instigators of this trend – the architects and interior designers that promote wide open, ‘collaborative’ spaces – and reports that even design professionals experience dissatisfaction with the open-plan office concept.

Such pieces focus on the extremes of any idea, because the extremes attract the most attention. So, before we overcorrect and go back to planning a series of private 225-square-foot offices lining a lonely circuitous corridor, perhaps it’s fair to identify why open-plan office concepts were developed in the first place. We’ll also look at the current issues with open-plan office concepts, and how they can be mitigated through appropriate planning.

 

Why did the open-plan office layout develop as a solution?

 

The need for space: In the past, conventional wisdom in traditional office space planning called for an area ratio per employee of 250 to 275 square feet per person. Concerns over the cost of real estate had shrunk that ratio in the recent past to under 150 square feet per person. Today, with concerns over density and the desire for wide-open, ‘all hands’ areas, the area ratio per person is trending back up.

 

Construction costs: There is a significantly higher cost in building the additional walls, doors, lighting and temperature controls that individual offices require.

 

The need for collaboration: Since work modes have evolved, being in the office is often not required to complete work. Instead, the office has become a place for exchanging ideas, absorbing information, and to serve as a reminder of a company’s culture and collective goals.

 

Current issues and ways to alleviate them

 

  1. High density: By far the biggest enemy the open-plan office faces is To be clear, open-plan spaces naturally promote densification and efficiency, and have been utilised to serve exactly those purposes. When the desired outcome of open-plan office design is to get team members in seats in the smallest footprint possible, problems will develop. Like the cities we live in, it all comes down to what is a liveable density and scale. Just as people in overcrowded cities leave for the perceived peace and quiet that the suburbs offer, staff in overcrowded work areas will eventually look for quieter places to carry out their day-to-day roles. A practical solution is simply to allow more space between people. Smarter office kit means large, cumbersome desks are unnecessary today, so giving people the same footprint of space with a smaller desk might be one way to make the open-plan office more accommodating.

 

  1. Workstation territory: We regularly see growing technology firms use the Ikea Bekant And what’s not to like? It’s a desk that is affordable, simple, clean, sturdy (enough) that offers sit-to-stand as well as other custom options. But take note – these desks measure just under 4 feet wide by 31 inches deep, with a larger version being 5 feet wide. This can quickly feel too constrained for day-to-day work, especially if placed side-by-side with seven other desks in a traditional bench format. A better workstation solution is to provide at least a minimum sense of ‘territory’, with a panel or barrier between workstations facing each other, or to provide separation from adjacent desks.

 

  1. Workstation orientation: Think of the restaurant seating habit popularised by mafia movies – where you sit in the back of the restaurant with an eye on the door, so you can always see who is coming for you. Now, consider that strategy with workstations. Whether people are conscious of it or not, there’s a certain level of discomfort in having your back to your boss or colleagues, and your screen exposed. A sense of territory and privacy will go a long way in mitigating that stress. Orient people so that they face common aisles and walkways, and/or provide privacy from the back.

 

  1. Lack of focus space: The traditional open-plan office model – the one that is referenced and complained about most frequently – separates managers from staff. Managers are in offices, and staff are at workstations. While it’s not necessary to eliminate this hierarchy completely, consider the privacy needs of the open office team, and place small, two to four-people rooms nearby the open areas, with technology capable of handling the same needs that a workstation would. This will give team members in open-plan office settings the flexibility and freedom to escape when they need to concentrate – and conversely, enable small groups to move into a closed space where they won’t disturb others while they collaborate.

 

  1. Inappropriate adjacencies: Putting your team right next to an open break-out area is a recipe for disaster. A better option is to group ‘public’ spaces and private spaces. So, if you have that large, open, all-hands area, make sure it is buffered by other public areas – receptions, conference rooms, lounges – or separated from work areas with functional rooms, server rooms, kitchens, etc, to ensure that disturbances at team member’s desks are minimised. This planning separates work from play, allows private spaces to be free from distractions, and gives team members more freedom to have fun without worry of disturbance. Continuing the cities/suburbs analogy from earlier: cluster your public spaces as you would an urban environment with restaurants, entertainment areas and bars adjacent to each other, and don’t allow for too much sprawl. People flee sprawl because they feel isolated and don’t have a sense of what’s going on around them.

 

  1. Noise: The trending open-plan offices today come with architectural design that does very little to mitigate noise. While firms stretch their tenant improvement budgets to deconstruct the traditional office with concrete or hard surface floors and open ceilings, the acoustic issuesthat come out of these designs need to be addressed. Acoustic panels, carpeting and sound masking (white noise machines for the office) are great ways to resolve noise transfer.

 

  1. Team separation: It’s always best for your staff to be together – but breaking up your workstation groupings with physical barriers or panels is a great way to contain noise within different areas of the office.

 

  1. One size doesn't fit all: Designing your office requires knowledge of how all your different teams/departments function – how they work, the tools they require and the space they need. An office that employs multiple professions under one roof is going to need different solutions. The sales team will be mobile and noisy, with work-anywhere freedom. Your developers are going to be plugged in, producing and engaged but susceptible to distraction. We often consider spaces being too noisy as problematic, but a sales or marketing team may thrive on the energy and excitement generated by constant communication. A quiet space may not be the best answer for those groups. Make sure your teams have the space they need to do their best work.

 

As construction costs continue to rise, remote working becomes more of an alternative, causing an even greater barrier to communication and likelihood of social isolation. This presents an even greater case for collaborative office space. What remains clear is the need for environments in office spaces that bring people together, not further apart.

About the Author: Nicholas Willis
Nicholas Willis is interior planning director at Hughes Marino, where he enhances the firm's ability to represent their clients by applying his comprehensive knowledge of the commercial office design process. In a nearly two-decade career, he has planned, designed, and managed the execution of millions of square feet in commercial office and retail tenant developments. With extensive experience in open office plan strategy, the Planning + Design and Program, Project and Construction Management teams at Hughes Marino can help clients create dream spaces that cultivate and nurture their unique company cultures.