Open-Plan Offices: Searching for Healthy Office Life

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I’m sure you’ve seen it many times that our workplaces tend to be more open and many companies specifically use open-plan offices.

However, I don’t recall any substantial research that claims that open-plan offices creates a better workplace or a healthy office life.

So I looked for people working in open-plan offices and asked:

“How do you feel about open office plans? What would be your design solution to one or many of these open office plan problems?”

We received many replies,

So today I’m happy to share with you a bunch of interesting insights that we’ve learned from people in open-plan offices.

We’ll be covering:

•  Cubicles in Open-Plan Offices
•  Distractions in Open-Plan Offices
•  Acoustics in Open-Plan Offices
•  Collaboration in Open-Plan Offices
•  Shared Workplace in Open-Plan Offices

Now let’s get started!

Cubicles in Open-Plan Offices

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“Years ago I went to a cubicle office to find a friend. I almost got lost in there. It was like a labyrinth. When I was passing by each cubicle, it looked like seeing weasels in their little underground nests. At lunch-time they all were coming out of their little nests.”

Even if you have the dream job from a big-name company, don’t be too excited: you might be squeezed into a small booth.

Your personal cave is partially partitioned – lucky, not fully exposed – but every little nest is a clone of yours and there are hundreds of them in one big open spaces.

Everybody knows cubicles

These days in the workplace, there is the one example of office furniture people never thought they would miss, until it was totally gone – cubicles.

Cubicles, those muddy systematic partition structures symbolize the unhappy workplace.

Your own personal cave has no character and is hardly distinguishable from another.

You’re trapped in a labyrinth with partition walls.

There is fluorescent rather than natural light. It makes your vision crazy. You dream of going out for lunch.

Cubicles were once awesome

In 1964 George Nelson and Robert Propst introduced the Action Office concept for Herman Miller and transformed the office landscape.

With the appearance of a new generation of typewriters, telephones and copy machines in 60s, it all made sense.

The second iteration by Robert Propst as Action Office – II in 1967, was to quickly become the mainstream standard in the workplace.

It was a brilliant idea; a flexible, semi-enclosure of workspaces by partitions.

The Action Office with its 120 degree corners, was the precursor of the more sinister 90 degree corners of what we now know as The Cubicle.

Why we end up with cubicles

The Action Office II (or Action Office as it became), was an enormous success for Herman Miller, lifting them from a medium-sized family company to the leading contract furniture business.

By 2005 total sales of Action Office had reached $5 billion.

Sadly, many manufacturers with fewer ethics or sensitivity of design, copied the Action Office and tried to gain an edge in the marketplace by shortcuts with fixed (not flexible), semi-enclosed, orthogonal workspaces by the use of rigid partitions and hundreds of millions of square feet of these partition walls were produced.

The result was a poorly created office landscape.

The bad news for unhappy cubicle dwellers is that the concept isn’t going away any time soon.

Distractions in Open-Plan Offices

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“I am in the closest cubicle to the hallway, so people think nothing of asking me for directions to other people’s offices, the rest rooms, the kitchen. Are you kidding? I’m not a receptionist. I also find that people talk to each other when walking by my cubicle without making any effort to see or hear that I am with an important client on a phone call. so these interruptions and distractions are a big deal for my productivity at work.”

In the real workplace, you don’t have unlimited resources; you don’t have perfect office furniture, and you don’t have perfect coworkers.

You’re also not overly productive, because there are too many distractions.

Under these circumstances, most companies need all the help they can get for their employees.

Endless distractions

After taking down the walls and partitions to create open offices and foster communication, interaction and collaboration, many companies are now finding they’ve done the job too well for their employees.

What has been realized is that they’re actually providing their employees with endless distractions.

Conversation noise

It’s hard to create and/or find distraction-free environments in such open spaces; You’ll always hear multiple conversations, gossiping and chit-chatting around you throughout office hours.

You may even start to notice coworkers annoying little habits and secrets, that you don’t want to know about: people always talk about personal things.

Lack of privacy

You might find it little unnerving to have someone watching over your shoulder as you work.

Many companies are now struggling to find the balance of private and open space.

There’s clear evidences that the lack of privacy is causing people to feel overexposed in today’s workplaces, and is threatening people’s engagement and their cognitive, emotional and even physical well-being.

Acoustics in Open-Plan Offices

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“I currently work in a cubicle—my neighbors are a man in the midst of a divorce, a woman with a problem child, another woman with an elderly parent who should be in a care facility. The only cure for my personal hell would be a quiet room with a door. Perhaps my employer would then get his money’s worth from my workday…did I mention that I am across from the copier?”

Checking emails, making phone calls and not trying to hear what your colleagues are discussing at a distance, are the actualities we do in the office when we’re meant to be working.

There is the noise of copiers, printers, and the mechanical systems.

There are just so many distractions. And it turns out the main cause of distraction is really the systemic noise in open-plan offices.

Visual noise

One of the great misconceptions of the acoustics in open-plan offices – basically, you always want to reduce the distractions from what’s hearing – is that we also should look for ways to minimize the distractions from what’s seeing.

The kind you “hear” may not be the only or the biggest distraction.

The distractions we’ve been talking about are primarily from auditory noise, but there is another kind, the kind that’s seen: “visual noise”.

The biggest distractions

A survey found that office workers are stressed when they sit within earshot of a conversation, yet are not part of it.

If you see a bunch of people gathering in our peripheral vision, you wonder “what are they talking about?

Did somebody get laid off?

Am I next?

The distraction of “visual noise” mostly from activity or movement at the edge of our field of vision.

Visual noise can be a huge problem in the office, because it does impact productivity.

Open-plan offices acoustics

Surprisingly, two important findings also came out of the research.

First, workers with high cubicle partition walls were not more satisfied acoustically than those with low cubicle partitions.

Second, workers sitting in open plan situations without partitions expressed less dissatisfaction than workers in cubicles with partitions.

“People sometimes forget that just because they can’t be seen doesn’t mean they can’t be head.” said one participant in the study.

Eyes are more exacting witness than ears.

For the acoustics of open-plan offices, it becomes what is more important: the movement of people in the realm of psychology or the movement of sound energy in the ream of physics.

Collaboration in Open-Plan Offices

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“It’s not true that we all need to work in open-plan spaces to foster collaboration. Office culture drives collaboration, not open spaces. Many of us don’t need to collaborate with coworkers all the time, instead we need personal spaces, distraction-free environments for jobs that required focus. But the reality is that many big-name companies are only interested in cost effectiveness of open plan concept, by squeezing more people in less space. It is a joke.”

In furthering the open-plan concept, the “spin’” is that such a system “fosters collaboration“.

Companies are finding they’ve done such great job taking down walls and partitions, their workplaces have become as hip as Google, Apple or Facebook.

It’s all a bit mixed up and the wrong idea is afoot that open planning can nourish not only collaboration but a company’s culture and identity.

Logic of collaboration

Google, Apple and Facebook are open-plan concept believers, and have pushed the open-plan office concept out into the main stream to change our office landscape.

Why has the sell been so easy?

Possibly the principal reason is that it is relatively low budget and makes for easy management, it’s not about collaboration.

Shared Workplace in Open-Plan Offices

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“I work remotely at home, often travel for client meetings. I find a business class lounge at an airport to be ideal workplace to me: food, coffee and a variety spaces – private and collective – depending on what I am doing at that time. So I’ve thought about getting a membership for a coworking space in my city; I would use a space in a similar way that I work at a business lounge – to be stimulated by human contact for sense of community, yet isolated enough to focus on work.”

In the digital economy that we live in, the workplace isn’t about fixed places, fixed locations and fixed schedules.

Today many companies who focus on “collaboration” and “productivity“, have redefined their workplace as a variety of spaces matching a variety of usage.

Sometimes the space is needed only for an hour, sometimes for a week, but what we also need are spaces where groups can work intensely and without distractions.

Coworking spaces

The traditional ways of the workplace seem not to be working.

The reason seems to be principally because of how our working behavior has been dramatically changed by mobile technologies since the late 1990’s with the arrival of laptop computers, smart phones and digital cameras.

We can work from anywhere and anytime.

So we don’t need to own a space all the time, but share a space part-time.

Shared offices, ‘coworking spaces’ like WeWork, Betahaus or Factory Berlin, have become functional as well as fashionable, attracting ‘remote’ workers and freelancers. Such spaces provide a place for sense of community, yet encourage the nomadic worker.

More choices the better

Could the location where business takes place becomes the choice of the office worker?

This brought the reaction of office managers of, ”This is crazy. Our employees are out there with the customers, and here we have all this empty workspace.”

The upshot of this has been that the structure in many businesses is now to provide their employees with more flexible schedules and greater spatial variety.

Spaces such as community areas when they want to be more social, or private areas when they want to focus.

The more options an employees has in where they can work, the more likely they are to collaborate and productive.

Final thoughts

Our built environment is becoming less formal and static and more adaptable and fluid as it supports the many different tasks, functions, and interactions that keep changing with advancing technology.

As architectural solutions, flexibility can be offered through easily movable and freestanding furnishings for a variety of spaces.

These elements can be used to blur the boundaries between private and public spaces, and offer ease of rearranging interior layout as the use of space changes.

Boundaries such as a partition wall or a freestanding screen can be assigned more easily than building full height walls.

OK; it’s your turn!

Perhaps by touching and feeling a warmth of wood texture, we can physically start associating ourselves with nature in workspace.

Surrounded by nature, stress will slip a little, maybe even your blood pressure will be lowered; FLEX Partition makes your office life healthy.

Pick up the phone now to create your healthy workspace.