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The importance of giving staff their space

Chris Evans

A staggering 85% of office workers around the world are unhappy in an open-plan office, according to a recent survey. The most common problems cited are lack of privacy, and its spin offs; noise distraction, being too approachable and the spreading of illness. Chris Evans asks office space experts about the pros and cons of an open plan environment, and discovers some new solutions

The open plan approach has become commonplace within many organisations. We are used to being able to turn to colleagues and having spontaneous micro-meetings, but at the same time having to endure overhearing trivial banter, other people’s annoying phone calls and the occasional slanging match. These distractions are clearly not conducive to productivity, and don’t allow workers to construct their thoughts properly. 

Indeed the survey mentioned above, conducted by Ipsos and office furniture maker Steelcase across 14 different countries, found that office workers lost about 86 minutes a day due to distractions. Added to that is the problem of sickness spreading quickly, with a recent survey from Canada Life showing that employees working in an open plan office took 70% more sick days than those who worked from home.

“The one-size fits all, open plan approach, doesn’t work,” exclaims Sam Sahni, Senior Associate at office interior designers Morgan Lovell. “Office environments need to be adapted to the needs of the business and its employees.”

Some people find it inspiring and creative to work in a crowded, noisy environment, whereas others prefer quieter spaces and quite often they want a mix of both. The workplace needs to offer a variety of public and private spaces to suit the needs of ‘we and I’. 

Sahni proposes what Morgan Lovell refer to as an Activity Based Working model, which includes open plan workstations, but also incorporates breakout spaces for concentration, contemplation and collaboration within the office. 

“The concentration rooms can be quiet booths used by staff for set periods where they’re not disturbed, while the collaboration areas can be non-bookable spaces for an informal chat or just a change of scenery, encouraging spontaneity and creativity. Finally, the contemplation area allows staff to gather their thoughts, supporting them to do their core job,” says Sahni. 

Some companies take it a step further and have super private spaces, which are like a re-enactment of the home environment where staff can properly switch off and relax, perhaps even play a console game or table tennis.

For senior managers, Sahni envisages an executive zone where they can have confidential conversations and time to contemplate strategies, which are difficult in an open plan environment. But at the same time keep themselves approachable to employees, and allow staff to use their office space when they’re not there, so that there are efficiency benefits too.

The danger is creating an environment that is too contrived or contains pointless, extravagant features like slides, fireman poles between floors and beanbags, as some major companies have chosen to do in the past.

“The physical environment should be a servant to the business,” insists Richard Kauntze, Chief Executive of the British Council for Offices. “An open plan office can work perfectly well for some organisations, as long as there are spaces for quiet time and meetings.”

Kauntze believes consultation with staff about what they need will go a long way. “Managers and owners need to think about how staff get to work, whether it’s cycling, train, bus or by aeroplane, and therefore what facilities they might require, like a shower. Also, not all staff will have their own desk, and so will need appropriate storage space.”

Location, location, location 

The location of the office is also vital. If it’s in a small town with few local amenities, providing food on site, and perhaps facilitating services, such as laundry and a cash machine might really help. “Additional ‘bells and whistles’ benefits like gym or pool membership will likely be of secondary importance at businesses in these circumstances,” adds Kauntze.

As for important and relevant features within the office, Kauntze and Sahni agree natural light and room temperature are important to make sure employees are not too hot or cold; can see properly; and have access to fresh air, if required.

Sahni also encourages experimentation with features to create a more collaborative environment and interaction with the office space. One of his suggestions to clients is a Lego wall, where staff members keep adding Lego bricks to build something new, and so it becomes a talking/meeting point and an exchange of ideas. Another is for workers to put up pictures of themselves as kids on a wall to create an identity within the workplace, or to maintain potted plants in the office, which if they die, the owner of it has to pay money to charity.

“What might be a useful design feature for one company could be a gimmicky one for another. It is about knowing the needs of your workforce and creating an environment to suit, whether staff are tied to their desks or need more flexibility to perform tasks,” concludes Sahni.    


  • Martine van den Bergh

    Great article - I work in an open plan office and can fully relate to some of the issues mentioned here.

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