Open plan offices CAN actually work, under certain conditions09 January 2018
Originally published in The Conversation on 9th January 2018, by Gemma Irving.
You might be back in your open plan office after holidays, struggling to concentrate and pining for quiet time, but the bad rap open plan offices usually get is not always deserved.
My research found that teams generally had positive experiences in open plan offices. I studied different types of professionals in these office spaces and found it helped engineering teams work together on process improvements. Open plan offices helped business performance teams with initiatives such as building an intranet and a contact database. And this office design helped learning teams produce new online courses.
But there are certain conditions crucial to success of the open plan. It helps workers collaborate when they had shared goals and adjusted their behaviour to respect their colleagues’ noise preferences. The workers I studied could overhear useful information, learn from others, and contribute to solving problems in these environments.
Employees valued getting instant help from their team members in the open plan, instead of being distracted or having issues with privacy. They viewed interruptions as an opportunity to help others, rather than as a problem. Team members could access shared whiteboards, flipcharts and drawings to help coordination and improve team productivity.
If you’re going to make the open plan work, rules for sharing the space are also important. These rules help employees to manage the negative impacts of open plan offices.
In one team I studied, employees used flags to signal “do not interrupt”. They also agreed to minimise conversations in the office. Break-out rooms were available for quiet work.
The rules for this team were the result of a formal discussion. For other teams, rules were informal and emerged over time.