Fatal floor: the debate about open plan offices just got noisier

As a UK biomedical science institute struggles with its acoustics, a new US report on the future of open plan working advocates a variety of spaces and closer engagement with employees

Controversy over open plan office design won’t go away. To some employees, open environments create a platform for collaboration and communication; for others, they are a byword for noise and distraction. But in the clamour of competing claims about the value of open plan, one thing is certain: not enough is known about the effect on the people who work within such spaces.

While a global shift away from private offices and cubicle working is now an established part of the workplace landscape, concerns about open plan design have crystallised in recent weeks around a number of high-profile cases where things appear to have gone awry.

Most notably, the Francis Crick Institute, a landmark new biomedical research centre in London completed in 2016 at a cost of £700 million, was branded ‘too noisy to concentrate’ in UK media coverage.

Noise pollution fears

A cavernous space designed to enable 1,250 scientists working in the building to collaborate informally and have unexpected encounters, the Francis Crick project has been criticised for noise pollution which potentially affects a quarter of its workers. Now tests are being carried to look at the acoustics.

None of this will surprise the authors of a new global report from Stegmeier Consulting Group, a change management firm in the US, which examines trends in open plan office layouts. The report identifies acoustic privacy and disruption as the main drawbacks of working in open plan.

The report analyses insights gathered from 482 individuals around the world. In synch with the wider debate about open plan, it’s not all bad news. Advantages include more collaborative spaces and interactions, and an increase in productivity and engagement. It is widely accepted that silos and walls needs to be broken down in order to collaborate better.

But the report also questions whether open plan design is the right answer and how organisations can overcome the challenges of open plan to cater for different types of working styles.

The rise of open plan

Open plan is on the rise according to the Stegmeier report: participants in the study said that private office space (currently standing at 41 per cent of all office space) will reduce by 10 per cent in the future.

Europe is leading the way in open plan with almost three quarters of survey participants indicating that members at various levels in their organisation already work such an office. This number is expected to rise to 80 per cent in the future.

The US and Canada are trailing behind with only a third currently adopting open working environments, although this is expected to rise. The report also predicts an increase in open plan workplaces in South America and Asia.

Implementing open plan

The Stegmeier report sets out six critical influences that it recognises as the most significant in implementing a more open working environment. They are:

Leadership behaviour – Leaders must set an example for new workplace practices for it to be more widely accepted by employees

Performance management – Managers should be held accountable for their employee’s successful adoption of new ways of working through performance management analysis

Autonomy and authority – The workforce must be given the autonomy and authority necessary to function in an environment where they can choose from a variety of work settings

Reward and consequence – Flexible working is not a reward to employees, it is a way to ensure optimal performance; resistant managers could face the consequence of employees moving to different departments if they do not adopt flexible working practices

Technology – Technology must be available and reliable to enable employees to communicate and meet deadlines; people working in open space environments also need to be educated on cyber privacy and security risks.

Culture – Change in environment usually leads to a change in culture; employees should be involved in change to improve their engagement in the process.

How open is open?

While concerns over noise are prevalent in adopting open plan work settings, they can be managed clever neighbourhood design or good acoustic design. (Francis Crick Institute, take note).

Open plan design suggests there is no space for private work or concentration, but this is rarely the case. Open plan design can encompass a variety of work settings that have the opportunity to offer privacy and freedom from distraction.

Adopting a neighbourhood theme, for example, can break up the unvaried nature of open plan, creating spaces to spark curiosity and collaboration but also allowing areas or corners for concentrated work.

The State of the Open Office report from Stegmeier Consulting can be found here