The pros and cons of the open-plan office

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We’ve read with great interest an article that appeared recently on the BBC News website on the history, pros and cons of open-plan offices.

Written by William Kremer of the BBC World Service, the article questions why many of us continue to work in open-plan offices when they can be depressing, noisy (or too quiet!) places to work.

Research was carried out in 1962 by a British architectural student, Frank Duffy, who was asked to sketch out an office layout. Whilst researching his project, Frank Duffy came across an article in a trade magazine about a new design for the workplace that was becoming popular in Germany. Frank Duffy said: “The arrangement of the desks was somehow organic and there were other features that were striking. There were lots of plants around the place, and a carpet.” The office in question was, of course, open-plan.

Company bosses leaped at the opportunity to recreate the look of the inside of a factory with rows of office workers

Although the office was open plan, to office workers in the 1960s it would have been unrecognizable to the open-plan offices with which they were then familiar. The idea for open-plan offices had, in fact, developed in Victorian times when architects began to use iron girders to open up large spaces within buildings. During the American industrial boom which took place at the end of the 19th century, company bosses leaped at the opportunity to recreate the look of the inside of a factory with rows of office workers.

It was often the case that pen-pushers and clerical workers sat at tiny desks in long, regimented rows all facing the same way. Those in charge would have their own office whilst the boss would often work in a corner office with the luxury of windows on each side!

The 20th century saw a back lash against this type of regimented, open-plan style with a new concept thought up by consultants Quckborner called ‘Burolandscaft’ or ‘office landscaping.’ Looking at layout charts from the time, we can see that whilst this new office layout design looked pretty jumbled and disorganised, the layouts were anything but random.

Frank Duffy became a leading advocate of Burolandscaft and said: “The layout was based upon an intensive study of patterns and communication – between different parts of the organisation, different individuals.”

Although chatting in the typing pool had once been forbidden, the new open-plan offices were designed to encourage debate and the sharing of ides. Management staff had desks in amongst the other workers, allowing a more flexible style of office management.

Whilst this style of office was novel at the time, the millions of people who work in open-plan offices today know only too well that there can be a little too much debate and communication! Whilst sitting right next to other people does allow for impromptu meetings, it does mean having to listen to conversations on anything…..

A study was carried out in 1998 by the British Journal of Psychology which found that background noise that contained irrelevant speech could affect workers’ ability to do mental arithmetic and remember things. Whilst too much loud background noise does affect workers’ ability to concentrate and can affect their productivity, the major question is how pleasant this type of open-plan environment is to work in.

Background noise that contained irrelevant speech could affect workers’ ability to do mental arithmetic and remember things

Open-plan offices that are too quiet can also pose problems too. Personal conversations can become difficult and it seems as though a certain amount of noise is important, just like the hum of background conversation in a restaurant.

For many office workers it seems that the pros of working in an open-plan office far outweigh the cons and in some countries such as Sweden and Germany, the right to a certain amount of personal office space is enshrined in law.

In the Britain and the United States, however, office design is often driven by costs rather than personal space and open-plan offices still remain common place. Private offices are undeniably expensive and in the US, the office cubicle has become a popular compromise. However cubicles still don’t offer control over the office environment or personal space.

A vision of the office layout of the future doesn’t include rows of office desks or cubicles. Free-flowing spaces look destined to become the norm with the idea of hanging about wherever you care to sit. Mobile devices and laptops are making this possible and the challenge for the future will be all about how to take advantage of these changes.

Posted May 8, 2013

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