Open and shut case: why critics of open plan are behind the times

Bashing the open plan office has become a global sport. But, as Kay Sargent of design firm HOK suggests, the game has moved on and many new open environments are now skilfully tailored to user needs

There has been a lot of talk about ‘open plan’ environments of late. Let’s all agree on something – open plan is NOT for everyone and for many, it’s a bad solution.  But we also need to agree that many people are conflating all environments with fewer private offices and more open space and truly open plan offices, thereby mislabelling many environments that don’t fit into that planning concept.

Open plan is a very specific planning model. Open plan environments are defined as spaces with low or no panels or dividers, limited or no private offices, and assigned seating.  And although they may have some support space options, assigned seating leaves people with little to no choice as to where they can do primary tasks and/or with significantly decreased ability to move within the space.

Not having choice or the ability to move when you need more privacy or to find a quieter space to limit distraction is the true crux of the issues many have with open plan spaces. While the open plan concept was originally touted as being more collaborative and efficient, the latter was primarily the driver.

Mislabelled planning concepts

Most of the arguments against open plan are ill-informed and centred on out-of-date, misapplied, or simply mislabelled planning concepts, and sometimes, just poorly designed spaces. Leaders in the design community have moved far beyond open plan and in the past decade have adopted a variety of other planning concepts that are more tailored to the specific needs of end-users.

Work is fluid and adaptive, so one fixed solution is not always the answer. Having a variety of settings and choices so that the right space for the task at hand can be selected is essential for maximising employee engagement and productivity. We need to create work spaces that align with the specific needs of our clients – be that open plan, fully enclosed planning, or anything in between. It is imperative that we work collaboratively with our clients to understand their functional and cultural needs, so that we can come up with the best possible planning solution that most effectively covers all of their organisational idiosyncrasies.

Towards task-oriented solutions

The most flexible thing in any office is the people, yet offices are often designed to support sedentary behaviours. Knowledge workers of today are no longer relegated to completing repetitive tasks that require them to sit in one place all day. Hence, over the past decade we have seen the evolution of workplaces from static, fixed, assigned seating to Activity-Based Working (ABW) concepts where we create task-oriented solutions that encourage movement and empower people to select the right space for the current task at hand.

These environments are about creating balanced spaces with a variety of settings that allow people the freedom to transition to the area that best supports the needs of the various tasks they engage in on a day-to-day basis. ABW environments are typically designed to be an ecosystem of spaces, primarily grouped to serve five major work functions: solo work, collaboration, learning, socialising, and rejuvenation.

Less place dependent

It is increasingly common to find work environments with social hubs located central to the space and designed with a food component; coupled with zones of work points with phone booths and team areas close by. As people move through the space more and more, they need to have access to task specific solutions. This requires that we stop designing spaces that support a single workspace per employee and start designing spaces that encourage them to be more flexible and less place dependent.

Many have advanced the concept of ABW spaces to create Neighbourhood-based Choice Environments (NCE). These spaces create a neighbourhood base or home for teams to operate out of while still allowing people to have access to a variety of work settings.  Having a team base where we can connect and have a sense of belonging and identity is important to all.

We are also creating Agile Environments and spaces that align with the Agile Methodology approach. These spaces are designed to support cross-functional project-based teams working in close proximity so they can collaborate, track and deliver projects. Many companies with a desire to innovate quickly are embracing the ‘garage-ification’ of space or ‘working out loud’ concepts. These Maker Environments for Mobile Occupant (MEMO) spaces include scrum spaces that extend across the whole office to create a scrappy, entrepreneurial environment with a variety of settings.

There is no one solution that is right for everyone. There are different solutions for different types of workers and a good design firm or workplace strategist will help you identify what your unique DNA is, not only for the company but for the groups within it as well. With that information, the environment can then be tailored to meet the specific needs of all those within it.

One size misfits all

Long gone are the days of ‘one size fits all’. Today, it is commonly accepted that ‘one size misfits all.’ As we shift from a ‘commodity based’ to an ‘experience based’ society, place takes on new importance. Organisations are looking to create ‘curated experiences’ to ensure employees’ needs are met, with these curated experiences often offering employees an a la carte workplace experience with a diverse menu of services, locations, and support.

Understanding the true needs of an organisation is what drives us to the right solutions. For some companies, open plan may be the right solution, but for many others, it is not. At the end of the day, we’re human. Despite the tendency for sides to become polarised around workplace extremes, the real solution often lies somewhere in the middle. Here, the middle looks a lot like trusting the people we hire, giving them choices, and being flexible.

The office as we know it does need to evolve to stay relevant. We need to create environments that support a variety of work styles and activities today to improve productivity and foster innovation. So, can we PLEASE move beyond the ‘open-plan’ debate and instead discuss more relevant solutions? Let’s focus on creating the right solutions and stop bashing a concept that many have already moved far beyond.

Kay Sargent is Senior Principal and Director of WorkPlace at designers HOK 
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