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As agile or smart working is rolled out across more and more businesses, Steve Taylor, Project Director, looks at the essential role the open plan office plays in helping businesses evolve and implement new ways of working.
An office should be a place that we can all come together in - a place to socialise, work, collaborate, play, study, produce and create in. Open plan offices, like all offices, must be places that encourage and attract people into them, but of course, not all do.
A badly designed open plan office is just a tyranny of desks, a space overly occupied with seating, storage units and photocopiers. This kind of environment, which prevents positive human interaction, will absolutely promote a heavier reliance of communication by emails and instant messages among employees. A badly designed open plan office does not help to build an organisation with a shared purpose, it can in fact decrease the wellbeing of employees, reduce productivity and diminish shared pride in the business.
Offices are for people, not machines and desks, and the key for a productive and happy office for employees is good workplace design. An open plan office designed around the philosophy of "Activity Based Working", which focuses on supporting every activity employees want and need to undertake to the highest standard, will generate a greater sense of harmony within the office and actively promote positive behaviours such as collaboration, focused working, socialising, community sharing and a sense of purpose.
With clever use of furniture, open plan offices can have different working zones, breakout areas and quiet areas to give employees a variety of spaces to work in. Furniture can also help to create a more homely and welcoming space. A large communal area such as a kitchen with work areas will help to bring people together physically and to socialise.
Due to their layout, open plan offices often have more natural light, which good design will enhance with plants and greenery -all important for employees’ wellbeing.
However, even with the best designed open plan office businesses still need to consider where teams and people are placed to enable them to work most productively. For example, it’s not a good idea to put the finance team who may like a predominately quiet work environment next to the noisy sales team. Privacy also must be considered, with quiet, acoustic and soundproof rooms an essential accompaniment for many businesses alongside open plan spaces.
Businesses are increasingly realising the need to respond to different office personalities within their workforce, and there is greater understanding that a badly designed office will affect employee morale and productivity. We have seen an increasing uptake of workplace consultancy and a shift towards more data-driven, fact-based design based around the individual and business needs of the company.
Companies are more willing to consult with their employees about what they need and want, and to act on what they hear. There is a greater consideration for mental health and wellbeing which is reflected in the focus on getting the right acoustics, light, biophilic design and social and communal areas. Through a process of Change Management, companies can ensure people are at the heart of the project as it moves along, and when they move in to their new office space, this will help improve how quickly and effectively they adapt and flourish.
Despite some critics suggesting that working from home can increase productivity levels, humans are fundamentally social creatures. Working from far flung sofas or coffee shops does not build an organisation’s sense of community or belonging, rather it heightens an existing sense of isolation and disconnection in this digitally enhanced world. And with isolation comes unhappiness and lower productivity.
Offices are places for people and their design should reflect that. Workplaces should foster social interaction and engagement, encourage creativity and nurture as sense of belonging to a team – we are basically tribal animals after all. Creativity leads to fresh thinking and a sense of team-belonging can positively impact staff retention – all of which is positive for the employer.
Establishing a social design is relatively simple. Alongside traditional work stations, business should adopt informal community and collaborative spaces such as soft seating areas, coffee bars and even space capsules that allow staff to integrate away from their desks. Creating ‘collision points’ such as centralising the printer, water fountain, coffee machine and recycling bins can foster more spontaneous social interactions.
Whatever your experience has been with open plan offices, there are plenty of success stories of where it has been done well and people and businesses have flourished.