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Closed Concept: What’s wrong with open-concept offices?

Open office layouts were supposed to be the future – so why do so many people hate them?

Jul 15, 2014

by Alix Kemp

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Illustration Joren Cull

It was supposed to revolutionize office work by opening up the workplace, turning it into a flexible, collaborative space where workers felt free rather than boxed in by offices, and that would allow employees to personalize their workspaces according to their tasks.

“If you’re not providing a trade off of space, and you’re just making the space smaller, there are going to be issues.” – Laura Lee Ross, workplace specialist, Teknion

In the late 1960s, designer Robert Propst created a series of flexible partitions and workplace furniture that was lauded by both office workers and employers as the next great thing in office design. He called it the Action Office, but within a matter of years it became known as the cubicle, and offices filled up with soulless warrens of identical grey boxes occupied by row upon row of dissatisfied employees. But the next great thing, the open concept office, is taking down those fabric-wrapped partitions and promising to replace them with collaborative spaces filled with natural light and productive, happy workers.

Unfortunately, like the Action Office of the past, open concept offices, while embraced by everyone from Google to Shell Canada, may not deliver the hoped for results. A 2011 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health found that workers in open offices take 62 per cent more sick days than those with private offices, while a 2009 review in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found evidence linking open offices to reduced motivation, job satisfaction and productivity.

Sean Crawford, a principal with Shearer Design in Calgary, says one of the advantages of open concept offices is that each worker requires less space. “If you look at efficient office space and you’re optimizing your square footage, there’s a bottom line upside for companies.”

But the problem is that choosing an office concept because it allows you to cram as many employees as possible into a small space is hardly a recipe for success. In fact, it’s a surefire way to spread illness and make employees miserable. Done right, open concept offices take just as much space as floor plans that consist primarily or entirely of closed offices. Areas that are no longer being used for offices need to be transformed into secondary spaces – meeting rooms, social areas and quiet spaces. “It’s not a reduction of space, but a redistribution of space,” says Laura Lee Ross, a workplace specialist with office furnishings design company Teknion, also in Calgary. “If you’re not providing a trade off of space, and you’re just making the space smaller, there are going to be issues.”

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One of the major reasons for the shift to open concept offices is the increasing number of younger workers, but studies suggest that older workers and those who previously had a closed office are incredibly resistant to being moved into open workstations. One study done at the University of Calgary found that even after six months of adjustment time, employees who transitioned from closed offices to open workstations were unhappy with the move and remained less productive and motivated than before. That’s in part because, traditionally, companies have rewarded employees with offices based on hierarchy and tenure with the organization, making them status symbols to older professionals. Michelle Sigurdson, an interior designer at DIALOG in Edmonton, says that’s not the case with open concept offices, where closed offices are distributed based on which employees most need a closed office to ­complete their tasks, which means that a manager may have a workstation while a junior employee gets a closed door. “The leaders of the company have to set up these principles to say which people, because of their tasks, should get an office,” she says. “Those principles become a part of the organization’s vision, of how they want to operate.”

So how do employers placate employees who might not be thrilled about the idea of giving up their private office? Handling that change is one of the major struggles for companies switching to open layouts. “That’s how [open concept offices] got a bad rap. It was a great thing to do, but nobody understood the social and cultural aspects of it,” says Sigurdson. Madeleine Schmidts, a designer with DIALOG’s Calgary ­office, says employers need to be proactive about helping workers ­adjust. “Change management becomes a big part of evolving a solution,” she says, “especially if they’re going from a conventional, all-closed office scenario and the solution involves moving some people into open office workstations.” Schmidts and Sigurdson agree that having upper management discuss the coming changes with employees, address their concerns and explain the reasons for the new office design are essential to a successful transition. Sigurdson suggests having town hall style meetings or workshops with at least some of the staff to get them on board. “When you engage a group of employees that represent the whole office, they become the advocates to the rest of the group,” she says.

While open concepts are great for collaboration and teambuilding, they’re not the right solution for every business. Crawford points out that there are plenty of cases where they don’t work. “We need to look specifically at how people work and the type of work they do to ascertain whether an environment like that works well,” he says. “If you need a concentrated, heads down work environment, then it probably isn’t the best for that. Can it be achieved in an open office with a high cubicle wall? It can be. But then again, you’re creating elaborate small spaces that aren’t ideal for the general well-being of the people working in them.” The oil and gas industry has been particularly resistant to open concepts, in part because of the type of work they do and the corporate environment, and also because offices are still seen as a prestige symbol in the industry. Law offices and accounting firms are other examples of businesses where open concepts aren’t ideal.

Ross says companies sometimes move towards innovative or ­popular solutions like open concepts without thinking about how well it actually fits their business. “I get a lot of clients who ask me to come and talk about the future of office design or what’s the latest and ­greatest,” she says. “They often will use companies by name, like Facebook and Google. But when you’re talking about a financial institution in Saskatchewan that deals with farmers, putting a slide and a ball pit in your entrance might not be the best solution.” The key, she says, regardless of what business it is or what kind of office that business is considering, is for companies to consider their goals, staff and corporate identity. “Every company has its own DNA, and it’s so important and integral to make sure that the environment is an extension of that and that the people feel comfortable in that place and space.”

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One Response to Closed Concept: What’s wrong with open-concept offices?

  1. Arun Raina says:

    I think the concept of open office systems is grossly misunderstood. You do not have to follow the trend blindly and have to adapt to your kind of work culture. But if you do the open office system plan right it not only improves productivity but also you have a possibility of creating a team of people who collaborate and communicate with each other rather than having bunch of individuals performing in their own isolation.

    Open office plan has to be planned in such a way that it encourages people to see each others faces and talk to them rather than communicating by emails or other business communications. The business is fast moving towards human to human interaction rather than the traditional B2B or B2C. Human beings can perform better and if they work in teams and if they communicate their opinions and ideas.

    In closed office environments, while people may argue that they can have hierarchical benefits,the big question however remains, ” Is that good for business, or is there any other way of doing things better.”

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