My personal learning journey

Workspace design: an open or shut (in) case?

Open offices – collaboration incubators or total nightmares of noise, eavesdropping and stress?

Apparently, these poor workers have to share ONE LAPTOP!
(Sourced from

These seem to be the two binaries that inevitably come up with discussing office design. Most offices I’ve worked in either tried to fit themselves in the space they had or were designed by people with offices and doors. 

When it comes to planning “clusters” of workers – as a knowledge worker who is rarely on the phone I’ve had to deal with being sat near people whose work or lives involved being on the phone substantial amounts of time. As a knowledge worker who also has to deal with some coding issues and has to get down to a few pixels when editing graphics – this has been stressful.

School holidays are the worst for the childless open office worker as there are inevitably parents who need to have their phone ringer up at 11 in order to be at the ready to referee arguments that can go on for 10 minutes about whether their children can/cannot have a biscuit/go for a swim/should stop pulling their sister’s hair.

I’ve also been the person who has to be on the phone quite a lot. Dealing with support questions, negotiating with vendors, tracking down information, giving on the spot training – and felt the daggers in my back too as my voice is strong and my American accent stands out here in Australia.

However, collaboration and communication have to happen. Open offices were meant to foster it – but walk through an open office and you’ll find people shuttered away behind headphones trying to ignore the collaboration and impromptu meetings around them.

I find benefit in consultation and collaboration and the relationships that result from doing so face to face. Yet when I have to go head down/bum up and get my work done – other people’s wonderful collaborative discussions distract my busy, curious brain. What’s the answer?

Geoffrey James’ recent article in Inc. “It’s Official: Open-Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time” obviously takes the stand that a recent Harvard study, when taken into account with other studies, reinforces the argument that open offices are a productivity detractor. He advocates for companies allowing more employees to work from home. His view is companies will save money on the need for additional office space as they grow and productivity will likely rise. He is also of the opinion that if you cannot trust an employee to hit KPIs out of your direct sight – why did you hire them in the first place?

As someone who prizes peace and quiet, I see a lot of good in that idea. However, I also know that here in the capital city I live in, space is at a premium. Homes are getting smaller. So chances are most people won’t have a dedicated office space in which they can do their work unmolested by pets, children and other distractions.

Workplace strategist Kate Wieczorek rebutted the Harvard study in her article titled “A workplace strategist’s response to the Harvard research on open plans”.

In her article, Wieczorek disputes that most modern workplaces are strictly open plan and challenges the notion that workplace design is a binary of either open plan or a cubicle jungle.

She argues that strategists such as herself work to develop workspaces with a variety of options, allowing options such as the “neighborhood (sic) concept” where clusters of employees are working openly, but dividers exist between them and other groupings. As well, there are meeting rooms, phone rooms and designated quiet spaces.

Image (c) Ted Moudis Associates, sourced from Wieczorek’s article in WorkDesign Magazine

The article goes on to poke holes in the research methodology of the Harvard study, but I’ll leave that to others to dissect. The Inc. article took the Harvard study as part of a body of work on open offices, so I found that approach more honest to interpreting the research, but less useful in terms of coming up with viable solutions.

Arriving at the right solution is very much up to the workplace culture, the functions and roles that are in the mix as well as the physical limitations of a building. In spaces built prior to the 1990s with tall ceilings and industrial carpeting, there are technical solutions such as noise dampeners that could deaden the acoustics. As well, a designated space for personal phone calls so that people can deal with their domestic and personal issues in privacy and adequate meeting spaces.

There are also cultural solutions such as setting up time limits to adhoc at-desk meetings, not using a speakerphone, taking phones with you so they don’t ring loudly and repeatedly, not participating in web conferences or phone conferences at your desk if you are an active contributor or presenter, etc.

I also see a role in working from home in the mix so that occasionally workers can have that flexibility to work before the kids and spouse get up, stop to have breakfast with them and send them on their way, then work throughout the day and then be there when they get home and perhaps finish their work off when everyone is in bed.

My thinking has evolved over time regarding open offices as I’ve gone from someone who worked for myself at home to a full-time office work veteran of close to 15 years. I’m moving away from the binary mindset to seeing workspace planning as being crucial to fostering communication, collaboration and employee wellness and job satisfaction. I hope that businesses come to see the value in this too – because workplace design and flexible work arrangements can and should result in a win-win for employees and businesses. And no one wants to know that my plumber was late again…

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