Getting active about the open-plan office problem

Ever look around you and see an ocean of colleagues quietly yearning for walls?

If you cast your gaze towards the future of the working world, it's unlikely there will be a wall or partition to obscure your view.

Since the German design team Quickborner decided in the 1950s that wide open spaces were the best way to foster a sense of equality, comradery and communication in the office, the idea has been spreading across the globe and has reached the point of essentially representing the corporate status quo in 2017. Even Mark Zuckerberg has attempted to buttress his 'man of the people' credentials by sharing photos and video of his bog standard, in-plain-sight desk on the Facebook office floor.

Roughly 70% of offices across the US are defined as open plan, with the Irish workplace quickly catching up and now likely to mirror that percentage. 

Tellingly, the rising "popularity" has been fuelled by those execs (Zuck aside) who usually have a door they can close any time they want. As for the average employee, the situation is proving to be less than ideal.

According to a 2013 survey by global design firm Gensler, over two-thirds of US employees are unhappy with noise levels at work. Some 53% reported being disturbed by other people when they were trying to focus.

To delve a little deeper into the problems people are encountering when plopped in something resembling an air hangar lined with desks, sound expert Julian Treasure put together the BBC Radio 4 documentary The Curse of Open Plan.

The Sound Agency chairman joined Ivan Yates on High Noon to detail his findings, starting with the din of the modern nine-to-five.

"It's the sound of them primarily," Temple says. "That was my interest in making the documentary, because open-plan offices can be very noisy and they offer very little privacy for anybody working in them. 

"We all know the feeling of somebody behind you talking about their great night out and you're trying to concentrate.

"You're thinking 'shut up, I'm trying to think here!'. So that was the impetus for examining whether this was a good or a bad thing for people working."

Whilst noting that he was not calling the open-plan philosophy "evil or wrong" in and of itself, Treasure feels that the execution is letting workers down time and again. 

"It's very effective for one form of working, which is collaboration, and I think in the future there may be ways we can use open-plan very effectively.

"Badly-designed, it's a nightmare. It's clear that a lot of people are very unhappy in open-plan. They can't think, they can't concentrate, they're interrupted all the time.

"There are also – as one of my guests very interestingly said – no real rules or etiquette with open-plan. I mean, the postman doesn't come storming into your house and dump the post on your living room floor. But that is what happens in open-plan offices.

"We don't seem to have any rules about interrupting people or how the thing can work, so a lot of people feel very frustrated, put upon, and they find it very hard to concentrate. The result is that people put headphones on or people go and camp out in boardrooms or go and work from home. That is becoming more and more common."

The reason behind this frustration – and the fact, according to research cited by Treasure, that noisy open-plan offices can reduce productivity by two-thirds – is that collaborative work is not the only game in town. In fact, it's only a small part of our day-to-day effort.

"[With open-plan] we can interrupt each other, we can shout across the office, you hear a lot of what's going on, there's connection... And that's all great, until you want to concentrate on numbers and figures. Or write a report, do some mathematics... Then it becomes very, very difficult."

Treasure explains how the three core ways that we need to work can be itemised:

"Collaboration, yes, but also concentration and contemplation.

"The last two of those really aren't served by open-plan. The problem is that most organisations don't provide space for concentrating or for contemplating enough.

"So we're trying to do all these types of work in just the one kind of space. It's the one-size-fits-all that's really the issue with open-plan. People get frustrated because they can't think and also they get intimidated.

"For example, it's not always noise that's the problem. Sometimes it can be deathly silence. I've been in offices where the turning of a piece of paper is a major event it's so quiet. And in that situation, if I take a phone call in an office of 20 people and it's dead quiet – we've all had this feeling – how intimidating is that for me?

"'Hi mum, oh, nice to hear from you, can I call you back?' That kind of feeling. Meanwhile, how many people am I putting off with my conversation? All of them."

Getting active about the problem

A return to the concrete walls of yesteryear is probably impractical at this point, so one 'third way' is now being looked at by forward-thinking employers who want their staff to feel comfortable dealing with their daily workflow.

The brainchild of Dutch consultant and The Demise of the Office author Erik Veldhoen, "activity-based working" is a 'musical chairs' approach which provides office space to suit different tasks and moods as required.

Treasure explains:

"The idea is that the company or the organisation lays on all the different types of workspace required and we have to take responsibility for moving ourselves into the kind of space that we need.

"Now that's perfect if people actually do that. The issue with it has proved to be so far that we tend to get stuck in our ways and we don't move.

"It's like with hot-desking, people start to say 'that's my hot desk and nobody else can have it' which is a little bit antithetical really.

"So it really requires two things.

"One, for the organisation to lay on different types of space for different types of working.

"Secondly, culturally and in training, we need to be educated to move ourselves as the working day changes and as we need to do different things. So you might have a party going on over 'there', that's fine, because I'm over 'here', working in a quiet space."