2019: The Year The Open-Plan Office Fights Back

Love it or loathe it, the open-plan office has received more than its fair share of criticism in recent years. But, we think 2019 will see the much-maligned design philosophy make a well-deserved resurgence. Here's why.

Why the Disdain?

The frenetic condemnation of the open-plan office started gaining traction when The Royal Society published a study by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban, called 'The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration'. It found that 'open, unbounded offices reduce F2F (face-to-face) interaction with a magnitude, in these contexts, of about 70%.' An alarming statistic, right?

Journalists across the media leapt on these findings, with many using this study and others like it as justification for pronouncing the death of the open-plan office. Vice decreed that 'open-plan offices should be banned immediately', while Inc. Magazine suggested that 'open-plan offices can literally result in brain damage.' Powerful statements for sure, but look just a little closer and they're revealed to be hyperbole of the highest order.

What these journalists failed to reveal is the scope of these studies. Bernstein and Turban's conclusions about open-plan offices are derived from research into just two workspaces. Two.

If we looked into how, say, desks were being used in two different businesses and found that they weren't being utilised, would people then start claiming that desks should be banned from all offices immediately? Of course not.

It's easy to point to examples of ill-conceived open-plan offices – those with no privacy, no consideration for noise pollution etc. – and arrive at the conclusion that the open office, as a design philosophy, is inherently bad. This simply isn't true; these cases are just examples of bad office design full stop.

Life in the Old Dog Yet

From beneath the weight of all this criticism, it's easy to lose sight of the many benefits provided by well-thought-out, evidence-led open-plan office design, such as:

  • Promoting collaboration and team-building between staff, regardless of seniority
  • Reducing the stress levels of employees
  • Helping to attract and retain the best talent
  • Being more cost effective and quicker to build
  • Offering the flexibility to expand and grow with your business

Of course, these rewards can only be reaped if your new office is designed by experts who understand that, in order for an open-plan office to work, it must cater to a wide range of different uses and working styles. In her passionate defense of the open-plan office, architect Ashley Dunn stressed that 'a thoughtful mix of open and closed spaces is key to any successful office design,' and we completely agree.

We aren’t saying that open-plan offices are right for everyone – they're not. We understand that every company is different, with unique cultures, personalities, demographics, and types of work carried out. As such, each new fit-out undertaken must too be bespoke, designed with the individual organisation and its particular needs and workforce in mind.

Perhaps the people who designed the 'hellish' open plan offices we read so much about forgot that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to office design. However, all is not lost; as 2019 dawns we believe that – by learning from the mistakes of the past – open-plan offices are due a second wind and are likely to prove their worth.

This revival can only occur, however, if those in the office design and fit-out industry take greater responsibility, ensuring that open-plan office designs are thoughtfully conceived and that the methodology isn't employed just because it's de rigueur. Here's hoping.

For more information about considered office design, how it can transform your business, and how to overcome the challenges involved in an office fit-out, download The Rhino Fit-out Guide today.

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