Common Reasons Why Open-Plan Office Spaces Fail

by | 28 April 2015

When it comes to the open-plan office, both supporting and opposing viewpoints cancel each other out. Those in favor of open plans cite increased interaction among colleagues and decreased square footage requirements that benefit the bottom line. Those who are against open plans typically cite noise and privacy loss as the main drivers of distraction and lowered productivity, which thus negate the bottom line benefits.

Also: Reimagining the traditional office | Six attributes that make a great workplace

There are many anti-open opinions to be found, like this example from the Washington Post. When you look at a piece like this, it’s clear that many who suffer in the transition to an open plan do so because organizations lack:

  • a full-scale change management program,
  • a design that provides enough types of space to empower different types of work; and
  • policies that enable employees to work from anywhere without fear of negative repercussions.

This last concern I addressed in a recent blog post, where I described the six attributes that make a great workplace. That same piece speaks to how important it is to create a workplace culture that is inclusive of all within the organization. This inclusiveness leads to engaged employees who understand what the organization stands for and are empowered to make necessary change.

Plus: What studies reveal about Millennials | Business climate for Millennials

All of which leads to the importance of having a full-scale change management program that does the following (this is not an all-inclusive list of a complete change program):

  • Explains why the organization is engaging in the change: Both qualitative and quantitative reasons need to be addressed openly and honestly — no BS.
  • Engages employees at the beginning of the design process: While most people are not designers or architects, employees need to have the opportunity — perhaps via representatives — to provide feedback (and have it taken seriously) on the design as it evolves.
  • Provides protocols of behavior for employees to follow: Open-plan etiquette subjects should include use of the workspaces, phones, security, visitors, health (both of yourself and others), and distractions (visual, aural and olfactory).
  • Provides a mechanism for floor occupants to enforce and change the etiquette: Establish a governing committee that periodically reviews and modifies etiquette as necessary.

In short, when companies move to an open plan, management needs to explain the reasons behind the change, onboard people with the change, train them on etiquette for when and after the change happens, and then empower employees to own the change.

Finally, as to the topic of providing the types of space that enable people to do their best work, employees typically are engaged in four types of work:

  • Focus (heads-down work)
  • Collaboration
  • Informal networking among employees
  • 1:1 development

Complaints about open plans always mention privacy or lack thereof. Floor plans need to be designed to have “nooks and crannies” — places that provide both visual and acoustic isolation. If the floor plates do not lend themselves to providing these spaces, then quiet zones need to be set up so that people can take respite.

There are many other common missteps as well. However, in our review of most anti-open plan articles and posts, noise and privacy are (correctly) cited as big reasons for resistance to and resentment for the change. But having a robust change management plan and providing space that enables all types of work modes will help everyone to speed along the change curve.

Ron is Managing Director of Strategy & Innovation for Corporate Solutions for Colliers International in the Americas. Connect with Ron on Twitter or LinkedIn. In his spare time, he runs … around the house after his infant daughter.