Collaborative hive or disruptive arena? The open-plan office has long been at the heart of a heated debate.

Strange as it may seem, there was a time when 'open-plan' wasn't the norm. Although the first workspace to resemble an open-plan layout dates back to 1904, the open office as we know it truly boomed in the 1990s.

Designed to blur the lines between people and space, but also between work and play, the wall-less layout has caused controversy ever since. Is it a collaborative hive that fosters human interactions? Or is it a disruptive, unproductive arena where privacy is hard to get by?

open-plan-office-open-source-farm-tables
Open-plan office in Austin, Texas, designed to promote openness

Open-plan office: pros

Fosters collaboration

Naturally, the absence of walls makes communication and interaction that much easier. For millennial-dominated organisations that favour teamwork over isolated enclosed offices, open-plan spaces yield clear benefits. 

By virtue of their openness, such offices also help with team building. And although, as Susan Cain points out, it is often a challenge for introverts, sharing a workspace often brings people together, which contributes to an overall positive work atmosphere. 

Allows for more flexibility

The open-plan layout may well be the most suited to future-proof offices. Indeed, the unrestricted nature of open-plan offices makes structural changes easy to implement. If a business wanted to expand, restructure, or merge with another business, accommodating such changes would be much easier if there were no walls to tear down. 

Reduces costs

An open-plan office can benefit the business economically by reducing costs tied to construction, utilities and office equipment. For example, fewer walls mean less time and materials required to create the office space. Having a single work space also may reduce heating/cooling and electricity expenses thanks to an improved flow of air and light. Businesses can save on equipment investment as well, since communal spaces promote shared use of resources, such as printers, copiers and staplers.

apple park open-plan office
Apple park employees have voiced contempt over having to work in an open-plan office

Open-plan office: cons

Despite its popularity, the open-plan trend has long been suffering from a backlash, particularly from millennials entering the work scene. 

In 2016, Gensler's sought feedback from 1,210 employees at all job levels across 11 industries. The resulting UK Workplace Survey showed that “over 8 million UK employees work in open-plan environments and many of these environments are not designed to promote creativity and innovation.”   

So, why is the open-plan office bad for business and staff wellbeing? 

Bad acoustics

One of the most obvious obstacles to overcome in open offices is ambient noise, which leads to constant distractions that hurt productivity. Overlooking acoustics in the workplace can, therefore, affect not only wellbeing but also the business. 

Distractions

Coupled with poor acoustics, the misleading transparency of open office layouts also means that employees are more likely to be interrupted. This may result in emotional distress, a strong desire for isolation and higher absenteeism rates. 

Lack of privacy

Lack of privacy was one of the main precipitators of the infamous cubicle farm in the 1980s, and it is still a big concern today. Frustrating for both manager and employee, an all-too open layout hinders rather than fosters productivity.

The lack of boundaries translates into an ever-increasing need to get away. Managers take over meeting rooms, staff can only handle private matters away from supervision, even phone calls become a challenge. 

Hygiene

Just like a group of passengers squeezed into a chockful tube are more susceptible to a cold on their morning commute, sick co-workers are more likely to spread the germs in an office with no physical barriers. This may cause productivity to wane and, in worst-case scenarios, lead employees to take more sick days. 

Flexible open-plan office
Knoll Rockwell's unscripted furniture allows for flexibility and freedom of movement

Rethinking the open-plan office

Successful collaboration requires both group efforts and individual focused work

Designing for Focus Work, Haworth

In its 2016 UK Workplace Survey, Gensler highlighted a strong correlation between innovation and private spaces, favouring individual work over collaboration. The study revealed that innovators spend more time working alone than they do in face-to-face collaboration. 

That same year, another survey run by real estate advisor Savills and the British Council for Offices reported a clear dissatisfaction with the number of quiet spaces in their workplace. The What Workers Want survey highlights the discrepancy that exists between offer and demand for "focus workspaces."

As workplace needs evolve, how, then, can office landlords and designers reshape the open-plan office to meet end-user needs?

Habita coworking office in Istanbul
Breakout area doubles up as informal meeting space away from the main workstations

Activity-based working

The main principle behind activity-based working (ABW) is to give employees several options as to how and where they work at the office. This can be achieved by creating pocket areas of activity, each designed for the task at hand. 

The perfect activity-based office will include workstations, collaborative spaces in the shape of informal meeting spaces and conference rooms, as well as quiet focus areas. Striking that balance between open, semi-open, semi-private and private may be challenging, but it is very much in line with what millennials want. 

Cisco's San Francisco office is organised around semi-open pods for informal meetings

Breakout areas for socialising

The 'all work and no play' proverb first entered the workplace scene in the '00s. Today, breakout areas have become ubiquitous among modern organisations keen on blurring the line between work and play.

The socialising element associated with breakout areas also bears fruit from a business standpoint: it isn't outlandish for a coffee break to evolve into an informal yet productive brainstorming session. 

Google Dublin office breakout area
Coworkers socialise inside Google's unmistakably-coloured, sculptural 'O'

Acoustics

Fine-tuning the open-plan office helps significantly improve staff wellbeing and boost the overall prosperity of an organisation. This can be done with decorative acoustic panels, sound masking, or a carefully developed combination of both. 

Acoustic office furniture is another way to provide acoustic relief as well as a quiet environment suitable for focus work. 

office with aircone acoustic panels
Aircone acoustic panels form a sound and visual barrier inside RTR/Emerson Gothernburg's office

Open desks and reduced open-back visibility

Shared workstations with central charging points are gaining popularity in open offices where collaboration is valued. This kind of layout is focused inward, thus minimising open-back visibility and encouraging staff to interact. 

Most open desks can also be mounted with low partitions for an extra layer of privacy.

open plan office with Kano Opendesk
Open-plan office organised around open desks

Privacy screens

Privacy screens are a cost-effective solution to enhancing privacy without putting up rigid walls. Whether it be acoustic panels, glass manifestation or plant screens, such dividers allow for a flexible layout. 

And for those companies that don't want to sacrifice sensitive information for openness, there is always Casper Privacy Film - a high-tech obscuring film that makes screens inside a glazed conference room look black. 

In a nutshell...

Versatility is of the essence in modern open-plan offices.

Once billed as the ultimate office layout, traditional open-plan offices are now losing steam. In order to thrive, office design must do away with the fast-decaying open layout and embrace versatility by offering multiple pockets of activity tailored to specific tasks. 

Made in Bulgaria, raised in Morocco, "matured" in the UK, Elissaveta is our Editor-in-Chief. Her career started in the field of architecture and design where she developed a talent for creative thinking and an eye for aesthetics. In 2014, she found her calling in design journalism and now has over three years’ experience in writing about design & architecture.