Is it all over for open-plan?

One of the mainstays of modern workplace design has been increasingly called into question. New research is suggesting open-plan is failing where it matters the most – in the promotion of employee communication and interaction.

The report, The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration, concludes that employees in open-plan spaces engage in 73 per cent less face-to-face time than employees in traditional workplaces. What’s more, the use of email and other electronic messaging in the open-plan space climb by 67 per cent.

The research posits that poor design has placed an increased desire for interaction ahead of the ability to focus on your work. When you’re unable to concentrate on your job, your willingness to interact with your fellow workers tails off; in addition, the lack of privacy can place such strain on workplace relationships that employees might actively distance themselves from each other.

We believe the subject to be much broader. Open plan is a widely applied term with arguments to support and challenge it ranging from space saving, removing hierarchy, encouraging shared experiences and collaboration, improving transparency and destroying focus. We believe that what really matters is creating the environment unique to the future success of an organisation, recognising that physical workplace is only one factor in any transformation project and that workplace can be an enormous supporter of culture whilst true leadership should drive it.

Open plan

Bad open-plan can, of course, be very bad, whether it’s down to the glare of harsh lighting, poor task chairs, incorrect work-station selection or any combination of ill-conceived design decisions. The result can be sterile environments with no facility for privacy or focus, where – contrary to the very idea of open-plan – employees feel the need to be silent and not interact. From such workplaces, toxic cultures can easily emerge.

Great design will mitigate most of this through intelligent specification, careful zoning and providing the right support spaces. There is one fundamental however and that is to avoid confusing open plan with high focus. Removing the boundaries of cellular offices carries the implication that interruptions are accepted or indeed welcomed. It is generally naïve to expect that all tasks can be performed well at a traditional workstation in an - at best – medium focus environment. This is where thorough, structured briefing is so important to understand a client’s real needs and to encourage the conversation that challenges preconceptions that often exist around various workstyles. This briefing should interrogate exactly what an organisation does and the environments needed to support those key tasks.


This is only part of the story. Really well designed, well intentioned workspace can still fail, however this is often more around the implementation and messaging of change. Frequently many staff see an office move as an attempt to cut costs, to cram in more people and perceive a heavy bias of expenditure towards executive and client spaces.

In cases like these, the open-plan ideal isn’t at fault, rather the culture in which it is employed. It falls to workplace designers to offer the best possible outcome, tailored to each individual project. Open-plan is not a cosmetic measure to impress casual visitors, nor is it a one-size-fits-all solution, and to assume that it is, invites the kind of failures outlined in the report. Instead, open-plan design must serve the particular needs of an organisation, with their leadership encouraged to become involved in planning the strategy.

The difficulty can come when stakeholders are entrenched in their views of what open-plan should be and how it should operate – when the culture of the organisation itself has gone awry.

“Design of a workplace is not a silver bullet for an organisation that has some fundamental cultural issues,” says Stephen Moorcroft, Principal at Hames Sharley. “You can provide the most incredible workplace, tuned to organisational needs and really trying to encourage communication and learning. However, that won’t matter if you have a leadership team that doesn’t trust each other and passes that distrust down through their entire organisation. The most transformative workplace experiences need a leadership team willing to adapt and encourage the full use of a new environment.”

“An easy example is that for many organisations the day of nine-to-five has gone and there are still some managers that look at their clock as you walk in and walk out. It’s distrustful presenteeism and it soon breeds through a whole group of people. If you have that embedded ‘line of sight’ culture then its highly unlikely people will feel empowered to make best use of a physical workplace that’s been set up to promote collaboration or support work away from the traditional desk.


“Technology is an equal third partner to culture and physical workplace,” he adds. “If you don’t have razor-sharp wi-fi or you don’t have the powerful computers to actually perform the required tasks then again staff effectiveness is compromised. You’ve got to have all three for a successful workplace.”


The key to the success is planning and not purely in terms of what design features to include. Yes, organisations should take the time to identify the best design for their unique needs, but they must also smooth the way for employees transitioning to an open-plan environment. For this reason, Hames Sharley has PROSCI certified designers and works closely with external strategic and delivery change-management professionals to ensure that when initiatives like open-plan are added to a workplace, the current employees are fully prepared to trust and embrace the possibilities.

Change-management often depends on how attitudes are influenced from the top. The most successful change projects are where senior leaders are absolutely clear in their objectives and are able to articulate their aims to all staff. Frequently this will include an expectation that moving to more open or agile workspace provides tangible benefits to employees that will in turn impact business performance.

Stephen cites two examples; A central London law firm adamant that they could move to open plan ahead of their peers with a Managing Director determined that the best graduates would be attracted by being able to sit next to a partner, learn faster and qualify faster. The second; a major international investment bank that had grown very quickly through departmental competition and that used workplace design to address the silos this had created through a global transformation with a maturing business culture.

Both moved to more than 95% open plan, both had clear principles explained and exhibited by leaders and both spent time on change management and consultation to properly understand what open plan would mean and that an array of alternative work settings are required to support a majority open plan workstation environment.


So, if open-plan appears to be failing, perhaps it’s less about the concept and more about how organisations use it. Is it right for them, and have they chosen it for the right reasons? More importantly, have they communicated to their employees the reason for a change in workplace? Is a leadership in place that will demonstrate how to use the new environment and - in turn - empower their teams to take full advantage of their new environment?

To be successful open-plan relies on the full support of culture and technology. It relies on diligent briefing and careful design to cater for all types of occupants and the demands they will make of the space, this means providing support spaces such as breakout and high focus away from traditional workstations. The benefits of open plan to impact business performance are real and they need to be deliberately led.

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