Open Plan Offices: Time to open or close the discussion?

Open plan offices have been a point of debate for a while now. While proponents of open plan office stress on its egalitarian structure that encourages people to be more collaborative and transparent, the skeptics have gone as far as comparing it to a nudist beach, claiming it to have sexist undertones. Regardless of whether you love it or loathe it, open plan offices have dominated workspaces for more than a century. It all started in 1906, when the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Larkin Administration Building in New York to be the first open-plan factory with only a few walls. The dominance of open-plan offices came with the growth of office-based jobs. In the contemporary world, tech giants like Facebook and Google led the movement to open office design, making it mainstream in most of developed world. When Facebook unveiled its new campus in 2012, Mark Zuckerberg announced that it would be "the largest open floor plan in the world," a single room stretching 10 acres, designed by architect Frank Gehry. Today, nine out of ten offices in Australia are open plan, and 70 percent of all offices in the US. Even developing countries like India are not far behind on this list, thanks to their growing startup ecosystem. With the rapid increase in the prices of commercial spaces across India, it is an expensive affair for any company to lease a sizeable traditional office in an urban city. Open plan offices provide for an attractive alternative with its cost-effective design. This revolution is further stimulated by the growing trend of coworking spaces in India, which is by design meant to be open plan.

A reference to their popularity can even be found in TV shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, where the open plan office design was essential to the shows’ office chaos; the same chaos that led them to become satirical gems in the history of sitcoms. Despite being fictional, they bring our attention to one of the crucial drawbacks of this design structure in real life - lack of privacy and increased distractions.  

Social psychologists and architects have traditionally defined privacy at work in physical terms: acoustical, visual, and territorial. In other words, privacy in any setting is determined by what you hear, what you see, how you define your boundaries and/or what kind of information is revealed and concealed. But in today’s workplace, we are always connected, reachable, and to some extent always findable, in both the physical and the virtual sense. This kind of accessibility can enhance our interactions but can also leave us feeling overexposed and distracted, exacerbating concerns and sensitivities. A global market research firm, IPSOS, and a US based furniture company, Steelcase, after extensive international research report that 85 percent of the people working in them are dissatisfied with their work environment and cannot concentrate. They also found that, on an average, employees lose 86 minutes each day due to distractions. These breaches in attention carry a destructive ripple effect because once a distraction occurs, it can take as much as 23 minutes for the mind to return to the task at hand.

Generally, open plan offices are favoured by companies for two main reasons. One, they are cost-effective, and without a cabin system, businesses can save a huge amount of money. They are also much more flexible than the traditional offices and can fit in new employees (if need be) with little hassle. However, it is the second reason most often used in their defence- open offices are believed to create an atmosphere of collaborative spirit between all levels of workers by breaking down the boundaries for creative and productive exchange. Contradicting to which, a recent study reveals that face-to-face interactions plummeted 70 percent while emails and texts shot up by almost 50 percent since two studied companies switched to an open office plan. This is despite the design existing to do the very opposite. They suggested that people do better at rote tasks than creative ones when they feel they’re on display as part of their mind is preoccupied by social pressures. The knowledge of someone watching over can limit one’s creativity. Further, increased crowding in the workplace and low levels of privacy can lead to defensive behaviours and strain workplace relationships. As the last straw, in a study by the Cornell psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of adrenaline, a hormone associated with fight-or-flight response - causing increased physical strain.

Opening this discussion in India, the effects of working in open offices on employees’ productivity and health is especially important as to avoid mass-adopting another obsolete western idea. As lovely as the original intent may be, we might have let an overly optimistic idea catch on based upon preconceived notions of what ought to make people more productively interactive. We should rather depend on scientific research into what actually makes one collaborative or productive. The alternatives to open-plan offices already exist and are only likely to gather force in the coming decades. One such alternative can be activity-based workspaces (ABW) which offer a mix of open, semi-private and private spaces in one commercial office to meet employees where they are in the moment, not forcing workers to accomplish their tasks in a specific non-ideal space. One of the largest banks in Australia, ANZ, is one instance of a company to have reaped enormous benefits like an additional revenue and avoided costs of $33M from ABW. There are also other alternatives like eudaimonia architectural design and biophilic approach to architecture. Research shows biophilic design employed in offices increase the well-being of employees, aiding other financial benefits like reduction in use of sick days. There is also a growing trend and discussion around remote work, with a growing number of people opting out of office life. With alternatives on offer, it is likely that we will soon start seeing a combination of changes.

Garima Bisoi