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The problem with the open-plan office and how to fix it

The open-plan office: collaborative and egalitarian or noisy and unproductive? Whatever your view, it’s a layout many Australian workers are familiar with.

The open-plan office developed in the 1950s in post-war Germany and then swept across the corporate world. Its two perceived benefits are cost and increased collaboration.

There is no doubt that, on paper, open-plan offices offer the cheaper option, as you can accommodate more people in a smaller area to cut down on your office space. In the United States, the average office space per worker fell from 20.9 square metres in 2010 to 16.3 square metres in 2012. In Manhattan, where real estate is at a premium, each worker occupies just 11.1 square metres.

The open-plan office’s other selling point is that it fosters a flow of ideas between employees that would be impossible if they spent their working days isolated in private offices. However recent research casts doubt on this claim.

Instead of improving communication in the workplace, one Australian study found that the open-plan office, and its latest variant, hot-desking, had a negative impact on colleagues’ relationships.

Instead of improving communication in the workplace, one Australian study found that the open-plan office, and its latest variant, hot-desking, had a negative impact on colleagues’ relationships. The researchers found that offices occupied by one, two or three people offered “the best situations for workers”.

Another study that surveyed workers who moved from private to open-plan offices had a similar conclusion. “The benefits that are often associated with open-plan offices did not appear: cooperation became less pleasant and direct and information flow did not change,” wrote the authors.

A 2013 study found that any benefit from increased interaction between staff was wiped out by losses due to noise and lack of privacy. Employees who work in open-plan offices also tend to report higher levels of stress, take more sick days, and are less productive.

But if we accept that for cost reasons the open-plan office is here to stay, what improvements can be made to address its shortcomings?


modern office

The use of ‘segmented space’ is a growing trend in contemporary office design. (Photo: iStock)

One answer is the ‘segmented office’, a design philosophy “based on the idea that different spaces are needed to support different tasks and different personalities,” explains Libby Sander, a lecturer at Bond University, in a piece published at The Conversation.

A segmented office might have small rooms where people can work uninterrupted, larger rooms for meetings, communal tables for informal catch-ups, standing desks for brainstorm sessions, and phone-free quiet zones. Workers move around the office to suit their different activities.

The segmented office is not the perfect solution, however. Sanders reports that employees often feel frustrated having to carry a laptop, cords and other work materials around the office, and annoyed when they can’t locate a staff member. A shortage of rooms and private spaces was another common gripe.




Deakin University’s new $55 million Centre for Advanced Design in Engineering Training (CADET) building is an office-free zone.

Designed by Gray Puksand and built by Cockram Construction, its workspaces comprise a series of ‘blended environments’ designed along activity-based working principles to use space more efficiently and effectively.

“It’s understanding what activities go on and then designing spaces to suit those particular activities,” explains Kean Selway, chief operating officer at Deakin University (an AIM Affiliate Member). “[But] it’s not just a case of pulling the walls down and everything works. We have to be very careful about how we zone certain activities.”





There are, for example, quiet zones that cater for people who need to concentrate. “You can go into that area with the expectation that you can sit in silence and you won’t be distracted or interrupted by people. You don’t need to build offices and walls and locked doors to create that quiet environment,” says Selway.

“At the other end of the spectrum, there are highly collaborative spaces where the table heights are raised to almost a bench height, and the seats are raised as well. It’s a far more active, almost stand-up environment where people can move around easily and collaborate and talk around tables.”

Privacy – or the lack of it – is another issue. Deakin University has replaced its landlines with mobile phones, so people can walk and talk. “We have a range of rooms that people can step in and out of to have a private conversation,” says Selway. “It’s a very dynamic use of space.”

Meeting rooms that lie empty for most of the day have been replaced by “collaboration spaces”. But there are still a few meeting rooms available, where “you can close the door and have a formal, private meeting with typically between four and 14 people,” he says. And with Deakin University spread across four separate campuses, they’re equipped with video-conferencing and presentation equipment, “As a university, we use video-conferencing equipment as a natural extension of everything we do,” explains Selway.

“Everyone has ended up with much more functional, more beautiful, more usable, more enjoyable spaces because there’s been this shift in practice from ‘I own’ to ‘we share’.”

Small power point-free meeting rooms – “so people can’t charge up their laptops and their phone and spend hours in there alone”– complement the more formal meeting spaces.

The CADET building also aims to cater for people’s different working styles. “A person may want privacy for part of the day, or part of the week, but not all of the week,” says Selway. Those who want desks have them, he adds. “Some people have a highly reliable, predictable work pattern and workflow, so… staying in the same place all the time actually works highly effectively because that’s what they do day in, day out.”

Where people don’t require the same “reliability of environment”, that space can be freed up to improve productivity and engagement. “It’s embracing the complexity and sophistication of the way in which different groups work,” says Deakin’s COO.

 But perhaps the biggest shift has been in moving attitudes from ‘I own’ to ‘we share’.

“Traditionally in a university environment, certain people would have certain offices with four walls, lots of bookshelves, and an exclusive right to that space. The one thing we understood was that the more walls that we build and the more doors that we lock, and the more exclusive use we enabled when people don’t actually need it, we are spending…  hundreds of millions of dollars on new development of floor space that we don’t need,” says Selway.

“[We have tried] to remove this right of ownership of spaces, by an individual or a team or a faculty, and say ‘we’ll design beautiful, usable, flexible spaces… but share them when you don’t need them’.”

This approach means Deakin University has been able to invest in the quality of the spaces rather than increasing the volume. That’s saved the university $400 million that would have otherwise been spent on new buildings. Instead, $200 million has gone into renewing existing campus buildings. “Everyone has ended up with much more functional, more beautiful, more usable, more enjoyable spaces because there’s been this shift in practice from ‘I own’ to ‘we share’,” Selway says.

While it’s difficult to measure the effect of blended environments on productivity, Selway points out that increased usage represents a better return on investment in physical space. He adds that people have told him they’re having more conversations in a more natural way, which encourages the development of new ideas and innovations. “If you look at the innovation companies around the world and you look at the way they’re designing their office spaces, they’re designed for people to come together and collaborate, not to retreat and isolate.”

And how do the staff feel about working in the new building?

Reaction is split, says Selway. “There’s a group of staff that are up for anything, and they find any change a really interesting, positive environment with new opportunities. There’s the group that is reasonably positive, thinking ‘I wonder how this is going to work for me personally. I’ll give it a go and see.’ And then there’s the group who will always be reticent to changing what they’ve grown to know over time. You always have a small group that says ‘that doesn’t really work for me, I don’t like it, it’s not the way I’m used to.’ You just have to accept [that].”


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