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The open plan witch hunt

For as long as I can remember, there has been a witch hunt against open plan office environments.

It seems that journalists trapped in poorly designed open plan offices act as what economist Edward Glaeser called “entrepreneurs of error”. As they have been known to feed the public with headlines such as ‘Does open-plan get the worst out of workers?’, ‘Open plan offices suck’, ‘10 Rules for Surviving Your Open Plan Office’ and my favourite ‘Open plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell’. A few years ago, 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. Earlier this year, I had an email dialogue with a reporter from the same Finnish magazine, where I pointed out that her statement of there not being any difference between activity based environments and open plan offices was incorrect. The response I got was that she 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.

Now it would be quite naïve to claim that the open plan solution is completely without challenges. In fact, I would never deny that an open plan office that 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 quite 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 actually make those kinds of claims. So with over 1,600 offices measured, let’s have a look at what the Leesman database says.

activity based working, flexible working, design

We looked at all of the offices in our database with over 100 respondents and plotted them on a graph (Figure 1) that compares the Lmi (the Leesman score of workplace effectiveness) 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. In the workplaces where the majority of respondents work in enclosed offices, individual employee Lmi scores range from 46.4 to 77.2, while the range for more open concepts is 36.8 to 81.7. And while most of the locations with an Lmi below 50 are predominantly open environments, so 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 11% are predominantly enclosed offices.

So why do we keep seeing studies that conclude that open plan workspaces are bad? One of the main challenges is sampling. Plotting the workplaces we’ve measured on a graph based on their Lmi and proportion of respondents in enclosed or open environments illustrates that some open concepts are perceived to be very poor, while others are very effective. 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.

activity based working, flexible working, design

Before flexible concepts such as non-allocated or ABW grab journalists’ attention as the new open plan, let’s have a look at whether the proportion of employees in flexible settings is connected to workplace effectiveness (Lmi). In the same way, flexible working can go horribly wrong, or be very successful (Figure 2). If flexible means that you’re choosing between identical desks in an open plan environment with bad acoustics and no variety, it is no surprise that the results are poor. But it can be very productive if activity profiles, behaviour and workplace design have reached alignment through a successful change journey. Just look at our highest performing workplace – in that office 59%, of the respondents primarily use a flexible setting. In the third highest, that rises to 86%. So let’s be really clear. There are good and bad workplaces and the reasons for them being so can almost certainly not be pinned singularly on whether they are open plan or not or whether they feature allocated or flexible desk strategies. There are multiple other variables at play. Yet journalistic sensationalism means employees moving from enclosed offices to more open and flex solutions are being fed a predefined notion of it being ‘the worst thing that could happen’. I’ve been saying this for a while – the biggest challenge of every single open plan office is not the concept itself, it’s how it’s being talked about in press. And I think ABW is at risk of the same fate.

Those expressing opinions need to exercise restraint and, frankly, better understand the difference between research and a Google search. And those consuming those opinions should look beyond the headline and check sample sizes and the circumstances around a project before falling prey to shabby conclusions. At Leesman, we are committed to providing the industry with statistically robust, independent insights on the relationship between employees and their workplace, that promote meaningful debate. Our database is now the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. And with additional real estate data points that we collect as a part of our Project Henley initiative, I promise our insights are only going to get more robust and more exciting.

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