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Why the open office failed... again

An exploration of open office design and human factor compatibility

Image: Inhabitat architects

Introduction

Open offices are taking over the office design landscape, their initial popularity being driven by technology companies and start-ups. Their advocates cite improved collaboration, increased socialization and a more cohesive collective intelligence leading to creativity and innovations not possible within conventional office design. 

However, more and more reports and studies are showing that open offices are having a negative impact on the individuals working in them, ranging from increased reported distraction and dissatisfaction at work, to elevated stress levels and an increase in rates of sick leave. Perhaps these would be a worthy price to pay for increased collaboration, but a recent Harvard study used biometric sensors to show that face to face interaction actually dropped by 70% when workplaces switched from conventional to open office floorplan (Bernstein 2018).

An office space impact a company’s culture and values. The workplace environment has direct consequences on the psychological and physical wellbeing of the humans who occupy these spaces. The mismatch between open offices and certain human factors are what is causing them to fall short of their lofty goals and drive the increase in their unpopularity.

“The physical environment of the workplace influences the recruitment, retention and productivity of the organisation, thus affecting an organisation’s business capability to achieve success” (Al Horr 2016).

Background & History

Open offices are not a new phenomenon, they date almost as far back as office buildings themselves. Although there is archeological evidence to suggest that offices were used as far back as the Roman empire, the first modern office is considered to be The Old Admiralty Office (now known as The Ripley Building). Built in 1726 to house the clerical workers dealing with the influx of paperwork from the British Royal Navy’s endeavors overseas. Followed shortly after by the East India House, built in 1729, the architecture of these original office buildings were built with individual offices around a large central space where clerical work took place en masse (K2 Space; Marmot 2015).

Image: Underwood archives

In the early 20th century Frederick Taylor pioneered Scientific Management, where he distilled workers’ motions into their elemental parts and eliminated unnecessary movements to increase overall productivity. Workers were intended to be treated like cogs in a machine, many workers were placed together in rigid environments where they reproduced the same task repeatedly (Mee, J. F. 2019; Kranzberg).

 

Although the intention was good, the thought was that workers would enjoy being as efficient as possible at their task, it was found that “The procedures developed through scientific management, however, ignored human feelings and motivations, leaving the worker dissatisfied with the job. Furthermore, some employers used Taylor's time-and-motion studies as a means of speeding up the production line and raising productivity levels while still keeping wages down.” (Kranzberg).​

There was an attempt to translate these principles to office spaces and increase productivity by distilling workers tasks into short, repeatable components.

Image: Mark Storm on Medium

In 1906, with the Larkin Administration Building and then later in 1939 with the Johnson Wax Headquarters, Frank Lloyed Wright created what are considered by many to be the first contemporary open offices in America, the latter becoming a catalyst for the proliferation of open office designs in the early to mid 1900s.

 

The Johnson Wax building is a marvel of office design, the central office space was designed with massive dendritic columns, double heighted ceilings and earth toned furniture. Wright precisely designed each desk, chair and cabinet and determined its location in the room; the space between desks is ample and the number of desks limited. It is interesting to note, though,  that the executives’ offices were (still) individual rooms housed in a separate floor above the large open space. (Edwards 2017; Gibson 2014; K2 space; Recinos 2014).

Imitation is not always flattery though, and in replicating Wright’s design of the open plan office many designers failed to replicate the humanistic approach that is present in the Johnson Wax building, also financial constraints and limited space, forced designers to downscale some of Wrights’ innovations. ​

Image: SC Johnson

This led to the creation of something of a composite between Wrights’ open office and the open spaces created by Taylor, where rows of desks were laid out side by side in large rooms (often referred to as “bullpens”) with managerial and executive staff in private offices surrounding the bullpen. This allowed for space and cost saving measures, offices like this became the norm through the fifties and sixties (Edwards 2017; Kalish).

Image: Getty images

Image: The Apartment

In 1958 two German brothers, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, developed a concept in office design called Bürolandschaft, which translates to “office landscaping”. Their office designs were characterized by organic, flowing landscapes; the offices were still open, however they introduced moveable partitions and biophilic elements such as plants. Then in 1967 the Action Office was developed by Robert Propst working for the furniture manufacturer Hermann Miller. It offered high, moveable partitions, often configured into large spaces with multipurpose furniture.

Image: Dwell

The Action Office was designed as a response to the loud, overcrowded open office spaces of the 50s and 60s. It was meant to allow flexibility, control and individuality in workspaces; the partitions were meant to be moved around depending on the requirements of the employees; privacy and collaboration were both possible. However, in implementation and imitation of Propst’ design the high partitions became fixed walls between desks and the Action Office became the cubicle (Edwards 2017, Kalish, Saval 2014). 

The high, grey fabric walls of cubicles block out light and absorb sound, they became widely used as they were reported to increase productivity and reduce employee distraction by increasing psychological and architectural privacy, in 1997 it is estimated that roughly 40 million Americans worked in cubicles (Marans 1982, Sundstrom 1980, Taube 2014).

 

The cubicle farms that characterized offices during the eighties and nineties are regarded as some of the least humanistic office design and are often a metaphor for office drudgery and workplace dissatisfaction (Edwards 2017, Kristal 2013, Saval 2014). Propst, the unwitting inventor of the cubical is quoted as saying “The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive, lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them.” (Saval 2014).

Image: Wired

Image: Metropolis magazine

Image: Getty images

Image: American Affairs Journal

Enter the open offices of today, technology companies in the early 2000’s started implementing open offices as a way to increase collaboration and partnerships across teams of people while fostering collective intelligence to develop innovations (Al Horr 2016, Edwards 2017).  Open offices have been widely adopted since, accounting for roughly 70% of today’s offices. (Bernstein 2019, Davis 2011) As open offices are more affordable than conventional offices and can fit 3 to 5 more people in them, we are unlikely to see a radical change anytime soon (Davis 2011, Edwards 2017, James 2016).

The rise of open office designs has caused a corresponding increase in the characteristics that made them unpopular in their previous iterations. Studies show that they are louder, (Joseph 2016, Virojen 2001) more distracting, (Joseph 2016, Seddigh 2015) and offer less privacy (Sundstorm 1982, Virojen 2001) than conventional office design. Though theory suggests that open offices increase employee face to face interaction due to the proximity of colleagues, researchers have found that they in fact decrease face to face interaction by up to 70% with a corresponding jump in email and messaging communication of about 30%-50% (Bernstein 2018).

Image: Underground Elephant

Human Behaviour & Psychology

We can think of a workspace as a complex system of technical and physical components, humans have to fit into that system and not only be productive, but also creative and innovative. As humans we are fundamentally and psychologically at odds with some elements of an open office workspace. 

Humans are social creatures; however, we have a fundamental need for privacy. (Sundstorm 1980, Sundstorm 1982, Wineman 1982). Privacy can be classified as both architectural and psychological (Sundstorm 1980). Decreased architectural privacy can lead to decreased psychological privacy, particularly in an office space, this causes us to feel uncomfortable; in an open office, humans often find ways of illustrating that they do not feel like engaging, such as wearing headphones and avoiding eye contact (Bernstein 2019).

Image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

There may also be physical detriments to this lack of privacy, studies show that open offices cause individuals to be less inclined to make ergonomic adjustments to their chairs/desks leading to physical discomfort (Wineman 1982). Additionally, studies in an open office environment showed a link to an increase in levels of urinary cortisol in individuals in open office spaces vs cortisol levels in a control group in a closed office space. Cortisol is a hormone linked to stress (Evans 2000). Employees in open offices are also more likely to take sick leave than an employee in a private office, and in today’s flex work economy more and more employees will choose to work from home if they have the option (Brennan 2002, Dans 2019).

There are additional consequences to the lack of privacy that are inadvertent side effects of open office spaces, proponents of open offices often cite them as collaborative environments that increase human interaction. However, studies indicate that the lack of privacy means that individuals are less likely to have meaningful interactions that foster friendship at work (Bernstein 2019, Sundstorm 1980, Witterseh 2004), which can be an important component in job satisfaction and productivity (Sundstorm 1982).

 

The lack of psychological privacy not only restricts friendships, but can also restrict communication and feedback from superiors and peers (Becker 1983, Sundstorm 1980, Sundstorm 1982), which may have other inadvertent side effects, such as causing individuals to be less likely to put forward risky ideas, in fear of being wrong in such a public manner (Sundstorm 1980). This can dampen innovation and creativity rather than foster it. All together this creates an environment of “public solitude” in open office spaces (Bernstein 2019).

Image: V construction

Another factor that comes into play is the psychological need for control, studies show that humans desire a certain amount of control or perceived control over their space (Marans 1982). “In an office setting control might be important to achieve desired ambient conditions, and desired levels of privacy or to adapt or personalize one’s workspace” (Sundstorm 1980).

 

These effects are not just seen in terms of control of the physical environment. Humans also like to experience certain control over their interactions with others, something which in an open office environment is difficult. In an experimental observation of open office conditions on workers it was found that “The lack of privacy, coupled with the lack of control over interaction with others caused residents to withdraw socially” (Becker 1983).

Image: Office inspiration

Culture

Culture can be defined as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from those of another” (Hofstede 1984). The ways in which culture impacts a workspace are multifaceted. Firstly the culture & context in which the organization is present will influence it. Secondly the culture within an organization will be distinct from one institution to the next. Lastly, within an organization there may be subcultures, based on the nature and size of a given institution. “work first must be placed in the wider context of total life patterns; that is, the quality of (total) life must be kept in mind. At the level of culture, work and life cannot and should not be separated” (Hofstede 1984). 

The physical design and layout of an office is strongly influenced by culture and value orientations, both the larger culture of the region “office design and layout are highly affected by external factors, and it will be influenced by organisational and national cultures” (Al Horr 2016) and the culture within the company itself. “Changes to an organization’s workspace can also act as powerful symbolism, with the physical environment communicating information about the organization and its values, effectively supporting or undermining the desired culture and working practices” (Davis 2011). 

Image: Google office in Dublin via Archetype review

Image: Creative Time office via Work.ac

Image: Kickstarter office via Business Insider

Image: Girlboss office via Architectural Digest

An organization that has a strongly hierarchical structure, will not necessarily benefit by being forced into a horizontal landscape such as an open office space, and there may even be a mismatch of the working conditions and the needs of the individuals in said conditions. “a mismatch of the office environment and an organisation’s work process leads to productivity loss” and “an office layout that compliments work process of an organisation can help the workflow to efficiently stream through the office reducing time and improving productivity.” (Al Horr 2016)

Open office, as well as other office layouts, project a type of culture that institutions should be aware of when they make these spaces. “Design has been used to connect employees to organizational missions and functions, symbolically reflecting and promoting the organization and its working culture.” (Davis 2011). Employers should make choices as to what values and culture they would like to promote and integrate that into their office design. Decisions about office spaces tend to be made by a few high-ranking officials within an organization, but these decisions will not only affect people within the company, but also the overall company culture, and they should therefore be made with purpose and vision.

Image: Vital Proteins office via Inc

There is no one size fits all office design, and there is unlikely to ever be. What we are seeing now with the current proliferation of open office spaces is, I would argue, similar to what Fredrick Taylor did in the early 20th century, which is an attempt to formularize human workers. Taylor proposed Scientific Management to enable more efficient manufacturing and clerical work, modern proponents use open offices to push creativity and innovation, as though an open office is the solution to the lack of these in a company. In the end both designs are looking to increase “productivity”, but both unfortunately do so in a manner that causes individuals to experience stress and burnout. 

Image: Steelcase

The aspect missing from these equations, is the human factor; humans are complex, multidimensional beings, and in order to extract their full working potential, office spaces need to be designed with humans at the centre. The problem is not the open office per se but the mismatch between individuals and the workspaces they occupy, and the lack of awareness of the human component in designing said spaces. Offices should be designed to match the needs and the work of the humans that occupy these spaces.

When the Action Office was first introduced, before corporate space saving turned it into the modern cubicle, it was designed to be a flexible workspace that integrated humans and their needs. Propst envisioned the workspace with humans at the nexus exerting control over their immediate surroundings, creating the optimal environment. When many of the first modern open offices were introduced, they were vast rooms with individual desks separated by spaces and other elements to allow for privacy. Some were just break out spaces where people would come together to design or discuss creative ideas and then retire to the privacy of their own office spaces, such as in advertising agencies in the sixties and seventies (Brem 2019, Collie 2019). That is a far cry from the open offices of today with configurations of desks packed together in large rooms. 

Image: Herman Miller archives

Some office environments have always been “open”, due to the nature of the work individuals in them conduct (think of a trading floor at a stock exchange) and the need for rapid and integrated communication is at the forefront. There are also offices which have been and remain “closed” due to the need for individual privacy and concentration. These types of workspaces may be where organizations could look to for insights into reconfiguring their own offices.

Endeavoring to create an office that boosts collective intelligence and fosters creativity might be in and of itself, a noble goal. However, to truly create offices where employees thrive and productivity increases, employers should first research the nature of the work their employees perform as well as the structures and cultures already present within their organization. “Leaders need to make the call about what collective behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged and how. Their means should include not just the design of workspace configurations and technologies but the design of tasks, roles, and culture as well.” (Bernstein 2019).

Image: Herman Miller archives

The culture of a workspace is influenced by the design of said space, and can have an effect on the individuals working in them, however change in design will not force immediate culture change. Open offices can still have strong hierarchies even though they promote horizontality. More interaction does not mean better interaction, especially in open office settings, co-presence does not equal collaboration, and can in fact have unintended negative social and psychological outcomes on people forced to work and interact in these environments, leading to an increase in dissatisfaction of the modern worker. 

“The goal should be to get the right people interacting with the right richness at the right times” (Bernstein 2019). The answer to that is not open offices.

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