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Open space offices promote employee collaboration. But only with the right design

They should encourage collaboration among colleagues, team spirit, and company culture. At least in theory. In reality though, open space offices can break teams apart. How to design them so that they can serve you well?

It all started in America

The “open space” or “open plan” concept is known from the beginning of the 20th century. It started in small apartments and houses where the entire living space was a single multipurpose room. Essentially a studio apartment.

 

In business, Henry Ford was one of the pioneers of open space architecture. His factories were designed as huge halls full of desks and benches. In Czechia, the first open space project was the Baťa’s skyscraper in Zlín in the 1930s.

 

The open space trend spread like wildfire during the 80s, including the technological centre in Silicon Valley. In 2014, open space offices were used by 70 % of all companies in the world. 

 

It‘s been adopted especially by global companies. For example in 2018, Facebook opened a $300 million campus named MPK 21. There’s more than 3000 people working on 50000 square metres of space. The goal of these offices is to promote innovative thinking, creativity, and cooperation.

Would you like working in the open space offices of Facebook? | Source: Arquitectura.com

Open space offices tend to impede creativity and cooperation

With the huge boom of open space workspaces came also the first doubts. This was studied by a research at Harvard University in 2018.

 

Using electronic glasses or listening devices, researchers observed employees of two multinational Fortune 500 companies. They examined 150 people for 15 days in regular offices and 15 days after moving into open space.

 

Researchers were surprised that in open space offices, the number of personal interactions dropped by 70 % and the volume of email communications increased by 50 %. In classical offices, employees spent an average of 5,8 hours a day in contact with colleagues. In open space offices, they socialized only for 1,7 hours.

 

As one of the authors of the research, Ethan Bernstein, explains, people who work surrounded by others need to focus on their work, often wear headphones, and feel a need to “look busy”. That’s because they are constantly “under supervision” of others.

 

At the same time, companies also measured work productivity and quality. After the testing concluded, the companies were so taken aback by the results that they soon moved back into classical offices. Open space has also negatively influenced workplace quality rating. 

 

Another research was conducted by scientists at Queensland University of Technology. According to the results of their study, 90 % of employees working in open space offices worked under stress. Another interesting fact arose from the study among 2400 employees in Denmark. Employees working in open plan offices took 62 % more sick days.

 

Problems caused by open space offices even contributed a new medical term: open space syndrome. It manifests as high blood pressure, insomnia or digestive problems.

 

Solution? Open space is good, but only at smaller scale

So, should employees be immediately relocated into small, single-workspace offices? Not necessarily. The biggest problems of open plan workplaces are the high noise levels and the absence of privacy, which make employees shut themselves away in their heads.

 

Yet studies claim that even complete silence and isolation aren’t ideal for work. Therefore in modern companies, the best solution seems to be small spaces shared by people working on the same projects.

 

According to a study from 2014, small teams make better decisions, can share knowledge and cultivate cooperation. Without having to suffer the drawbacks of large open space offices.

In smaller teams, open space offices can be great. This picture shows the offices of W&P in Brooklyn | Source: fortune.com

The ideal number of employees for one office differs based on room size and type of work, but studies most often arrive at the number seven. When a work group reaches this number, any additional member lowers the performance of the group by 10 % on average.

 

However, the ideal number of people for one office must be established by each company itself. In addition to monitoring hours worked or project success rates, don’t forget also to ask your employees how they feel about working in the team and workplace. You’ll get valuable feedback that you won’t find in all the studies in the world. 

 

You may realize that pictures of offices of Facebook or Google may look like a dream, yet in your company, a workspace like that would mean disaster.

 

Tips from an architect on how to mitigate open space issues

If you already have open space offices or can’t find any other solution, here are some tips from the architect Ing. arch. Andrea Pastrnek on how to make work in open space better for your employees.

 

For each worker, try to create a private space where they can feel comfortable. One possibility lies in acoustic dividers that can work as blackboards or whiteboards. These can be free-standing or suspended from the ceiling.

Plants can also help optically divide an open space office. Modern trends are moss walls, suspended planters or vertical gardens that give the feeling of cosiness while cleaning air.

For comfort while making voice calls, try wall mounted divider screens. Free-standing or built-in “phone booths” are popular for longer calls and working on a laptop in complete silence. ČSOB even uses silenced mobile meeting rooms which can be moved around.

You can offer your employees enclosed rooms for relaxation with comfortable seating and ambient music, separate from the kitchenette and dining area.

Social activities can also alleviate stress. Playrooms with table football or pool table are very popular.

Offer employees the opportunity to switch workspaces. You can simply create several open-use workspaces, for example at a stand up desk, on a couch or on the terrace. 

Can’t decide between open space and separate offices? Every company has different needs. Together we’ll design the ideal offices just for you.