Do open plan workplaces really kill productivity and creativity, as some are now saying?

Hailed as hives of collaboration and centres of creativity, the open plan office is emerging as a mainstay of office design.

Over the last decade or so, there has been a dramatic reduction in the average office space per employee. In 1995, each worker was allocated 30 square metres; today it is 20 square metres or less.

This shrinking workspace can be attributed to a number of factors. To start with, the old corporate hierarchies which saw the boss get the corner office with the natural light and the view while the workers got the cavernous cubicles have been replaced by flatter structures and more egalitarian working environments.

At the same time, teleworking has enabled employees to be more mobile, the demand for flexible work arrangements means that many people are not at their desks all day, and, increasingly, work is something that you do, not somewhere you go.

Certainly, many companies are embracing hot-desking and activity-based working as a way to cut costs – and the size of the space they require to operate. But at the same time, a growing environmental responsibility is driving companies to consider whether they need an office with a super-sized footprint.

It’s true that open plan offices can be counterproductive if they are not well managed. However, this is just as much about managing behaviour as it is about design and construction.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking argues that our most important institutions – our schools and our workplaces – are designed for extroverts. She estimates that a third to a half of the population can be classified as introverts, many of whom “work in offices without walls, with no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers.”

GPT Group Headquater Sydney

GPT Group Headquater Sydney

The solution to this is not to revert to the hermetically-sealed offices of the past or to row upon row of stultifying cubicles. The solution is to design spaces that feature a diverse range of spaces with plenty of options, from quiet space for focused work to a variety of meeting rooms from boardroom-style to café-style, as well as relaxation spaces. In a well-designed, open plan office, people can personalise the way they work.

Trudy Ann King, who designed the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star-rated fitout in Sydney, says expecting one desk or one meeting room type to meet the needs of the entire company will never work.

“Poorly designed open plan offices are highly disruptive. Companies that decide to turf everyone out into the open without carefully considering design and behavioural change management do so at their peril,” she says. “A high-performance open plan office requires the right mix of facilities and a range of meeting spaces. It’s really important during the design phase that meeting spaces aren’t ‘value engineered’ out when costs get challenging.”

“It’s also vital to have a change management program in place when people move in, so that they understand how to best use their new workspace. This should encompass flexible working arrangements, so that when people need periods of quiet time to write a report or analyse data, for example, they can work from home.”

The GPT Group understood this, and implemented a ‘work environment passport’ when employees moved into the new 6 Star Green Star – Office Interiors v1.1 fitout in Sydney. Staff were initially cautious about the new activity-based office, which reduced individual desk spaces by 17 per cent from the previous office.

Under the passport scheme, employees were rewarded for showing their understanding of different aspects of the change. As a result, GPT staff have reported feeling they have more space, not less. The first employee self-assessment post-occupancy study for the office – conducted three months after the move – found that employees felt 15 per cent more productive in the open plan office.

At Macquarie Bank, an increase of up to 15 per cent in perceived productivity was recorded after staff moved into the 6 Star Green Star – Office As Built v2 certified One Shelley Street in Sydney. Research by the University of Technology Sydney demonstrated a direct link between the sustainable building design and employees’ assessment of their ability to work. The research tracked 2,500 Macquarie Bank employees over 15 months as they moved into their new high-performance office. Those participants that transferred from a traditional to an activity-based working model achieved the highest net perceived productivity increase of 15 per cent.

GPT Group Headquater Sydney

GPT Group Headquater Sydney

The City of Melbourne’s Council House 2 (CH2) was Australia’s first 6 Star Green Star – Office Design v1 rated building and the first to demonstrate that office productivity can be enhanced through good, green building design and a high-quality, healthy and comfortable interior environment. A post-occupancy survey found that productivity rose by an impressive 10.9 per cent after staff moved into their green office, with an estimated annual cost savings of $2 million.

How are open plan offices achieving these productivity increases?

To start with, only a slight improvement in productivity – just one per cent or five minutes a day – can mean an additional 18 hours and 20 minutes a year for each person working in a commercial office. Multiply that by the hourly rate of each person and the returns are obvious.

Much of this productivity boost can be directly attributed to the incidental knowledge that occurs from ‘overhearing’ and inter-connectivity, and the creativity and collaboration that is sparked when people bump into each other during their day.

All of the projects mentioned are Green Star-rated buildings, meaning they have high levels of thermal and lighting comfort, high quality internal air, reduced exposure to some of the pollutants commonly found in interior spaces, and an emphasis on acoustic comfort that addresses noise levels and speech privacy between spaces.

The new Green Star – Interiors rating tool also features two new credits that address ergonomics and quality of amenities – how the space works as a whole. The ‘Quality of Amenities’ credit, in particular, recognises the importance of facilitating more than just ‘water cooler conversations’ by designing spaces that encourage people to interact.

Of course, people can get sick in even the greenest offices with the highest air change rates. When they do, it’s up to their employers to have an established culture that makes it OK to have a few days off to recover. This is about workplace culture, not workplace design.

CH2 Interior

CH2 Interior

However, these new diverse and flexible spaces are healthy and sustainable by nature. People move around more freely and use different ergonomic positions, despite their office having fewer square metres per person. They consume less energy as their desks are cleared and unplugged every day. They use less paper as there is less opportunity to file it away or pile it up on desks, and they have a greater sense of their individual responsibility to make sustainable choices. These benefits deliver outcomes that reach well beyond the office, and will translate into smarter, more sustainable choices.

Open plan offices are neither the death knell for productivity nor the answer to all our workplace prayers, but open plan and activity-based working options can help to provide a healthy and interactive environment with a mixture of inspiring working spaces. Our own behaviour – how loud we talk on the phone, how much we call out across the office, how easily we interrupt our colleagues – can have just as much, if not more, impact on workplace productivity than the initial design. If office styles are changing, so should we.