The open plan witch hunt – revisited
I first wrote this article in 2017, after seeing a flurry of headlines being fed to the public, covering everything from ‘Does open-plan get the worst out of workers?’, ‘Open-plan offices suck’, and ‘10 rules for surviving your open-plan office’, to my personal favourite: ‘Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell’.
It appears the pitchforks haven’t been lowered; the witch hunt against open-plan environments is still in full swing. Despite everything we’ve learned about both home working and office-based experiences.
A few years prior to my publishing the rebuttal, an article I co-authored was referenced in The New Yorker, in an article titled ‘The open-office trap’. While our findings predominantly identified positive experiences among the participants, the article chose to focus on the small proportion of negative findings. Two days later, a Finnish business magazine retold that story from The New Yorker with the headline ‘All studies agree that open plan is a terrible idea’, even though that was far from what we had concluded. It also seems that what gets published is sometimes heavily influenced by the author’s own experiences.
I later sent an email to the same Finnish magazine, where I pointed out that their statement of there not being any difference between activity-based working (ABW) environments and open-plan offices was incorrect. The response I got was that the reporter had worked in both and she thought they were the same. So based on her personal experience, it was published in a nationwide business magazine.
Taking these attention-grabbing headlines at face value is extremely risky.
A case in point of this happening more recently is the claims of the death of the office and the office desk, most notably in the Wall Street Journal, which we responded to in January 2021.
It would be naïve to claim that the open-plan solution is completely without challenges. In fact, I would never deny that an open-plan office which is expected to support all activities from focused work to telephone conversations, mixed with poor acoustic and no variety of settings, is a poor solution. But that does not mean the entire concept is flawed and that all open environments are bad. When research is conducted on poorly designed open-plan offices, I would expect to see results that show it is bad. Some of the damning headlines have in fact been based on findings from research, some of which have respondent numbers reaching statistically interesting sample sizes.
But if all those respondents are from one or two organisations with poorly designed workplaces, it’s against all laws of statistics to generalise and conclude that open offices are generally flawed as a concept.
It’s not until you have looked at enough different open-plan offices that you can make those kinds of claims. With more than 5,000 workplaces measured and over 3,000 of those with more than 50 responses, let’s have a look at what the Leesman database says.
We looked at all offices in our database with 50 respondents or more and plotted them on a graph (Figure 1) that compares the Lmi against the proportion of respondents in enclosed offices. The message is clear if rather self-evident: both open environments and more enclosed office concepts can be successful or can fail. While most of the workplaces with an Lmi below 50 are predominantly open environments, so too are the high performers. Out of the top 10 workplaces (based on Lmi), there is only one location with more than 50% of the employees in a private or shared office – and it’s just barely inside the top ten. Out of all the buildings with an Lmi of 70 or above, only 13% are predominantly enclosed offices.
So why do we keep seeing studies that conclude that open-plan workplaces are bad? One of the main challenges is sampling. Plotting the workplaces we’ve measured on a graph based on their Lmi and the proportion of respondents in enclosed or open environments illustrates that some open concepts are perceived to be very poor, while others provide an outstanding experience. Now imagine a study that looks at just one or two of these offices, and the organisation that agreed to participate in this study happens to be one of the dots at the bottom left of the graph. All of a sudden it becomes quite evident that we can’t conclude that all the other open offices are either good or bad, only based on that one office. But this is still happening.