Social Anthropology at Work: Deconstructing the Open Office Myth

Open and shared workspaces are here to stay. In 2010, the average office environment usable square foot per person was 225 usable square feet per person, compared to 2013’s average of 150. According to a recent CoreNET survey, a whopping 81% of companies surveyed have already adopted an open-space floor plan strategy.

Cost savings are a big driver for companies. AT&T eliminated offices and consolidated workspace with savings of $3,000 per office for a total of $550 million per year, according to a General Services Administration report. Nortel’s telecommuting program saves $20 million a year in real estate, the equivalent of two 20-story office buildings with a 40,000-square-foot floor plate.

There are also perceived benefits of unlocking employees’ collaborative impulses by taking away barriers to communication.

But open office environments have recently been getting a bad rap in the press. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time magazine describe studies measuring the unhappiness and lower productivity of workers frustrated about sitting elbow-to-elbow with hundreds of coworkers in “a big open room.” Described this way, why wouldn’t they be upset?

Open Offices ≠ Instant Collaboration

After studying this phenomenon for the past few decades, I think I understand the main cause of the problem. Victims are (justifiably) rebelling from planning and design decisions that are driven by the desire to fit too many people in one area without considering all of their work activities. Since all knowledge workers are not the same, their work place solutions should not be one-size-fits-all.

The idea that simply taking down walls and having everyone working together in the same room will exponentially increase productivity and collaboration is a bit overzealous. An open office solution does not create instant collaboration. People learn, think, do, ideate and collaborate differently. So they should have a variety spaces to carry out these activities within their work environment. It’s not rocket science; its just an evidence-based design approach to providing activity settings based upon what people do rather than how much they’re paid or how many cubes fit on a floor plan.

Applying Research

All of our clients conduct research and apply findings, whether its market research, scientific research or analytical research. Since owners want to make the best use of every square foot, planners and designers need to do the same and use work style evidence and occupancy data to support their ideas. Companies can’t afford not to take this approach! There are many factors to consider when creating a dynamic efficient workplace; and yes, some open office plans tend to oversimplify these considerations.

I recently presented at a Tradeline Conference about designing an Agile Workplace — a workplace flexible enough to comfortably accommodate the various and changing needs of the mobile knowledge worker. This is different than designing a space according to strict standards based on pay grade.

To make “agile” work, an important step is to evaluate the work styles of all employees who will use the space. It pays to do a quick measure of how much, when and why so that you can size settings accordingly. Next is to conduct a quick conference analysis to determine how many hours of formal and informal meetings the work environment needs to accommodate. The conferencing benchmarks of yesteryear don’t really apply anymore.

Six Work Style Indicators

There are also six work style indicators that establish the DNA of an organization and will truly set the tone of design decisions:

  1. Mobility: How often do employees need to change location in order to get their tasks done?
  2. Hierarchy: Does a company assign workspace based on an employee’s rank, assigned seating ratio, mobility level, job function or other measures?
  3. Network: How much of the organization works with local versus distributed teams? This will impact shared support functions, IT and branding.
  4. Social atmosphere: What is the desired level of interaction among teams, groups, communities, and campuses?
  5. Energy level: Does the work atmosphere want to be quiet and subdued or high energy and enthusiastic?
  6. Privacy: What is the desired level of control of the ambient environment?

By measuring occupants’ work styles, you’ll be better prepared to design a workplace that satisfies all parties, and makes the best use of space and resources. Layered planning is a technique that combines multiple spaces into one footprint. This increases the efficiency and provides added value to space allocation. It also makes a vanilla space a little more interesting!

To learn more about agile workplace design, check out the full article on Tradeline’s website.

Principal, Design Strategy