How are open plan offices impacting workplaces and staff?

The debate surrounding open plan offices has intensified in the last couple of years, a result of their rapid rise in popularity. It’s estimated that 9 in 10 offices in Australia are now using open plan layouts, but are they really the best option for a company and its staff?

What is open plan?

Open plan offices involve reducing or completely eliminating private offices for staff, a move which began in the 1950s but has gained widespread traction in the last 30 years. An open plan layout is now considered the norm, but rising opposition within research, the media, and staff could lead to a shift back to more traditional workplace layouts.

Why should you consider open plan?

Adoption of open plan offices were made for two key reasons. Firstly, converting to open plan reduces space and building requirements and as a result, real estate and fit-out costs. When moving to Barangaroo in 2016, Swiss Re reduced their floorplate from their previous two-and-a-half floors to just one floor by adopting an open layout. With this greater flexibility in layout design, firms can offer greater amenities to staff to suit different work styles and tasks. The main benefit of an open plan office is that it increases collaboration, and as a result, productivity. Moving employees out of private offices ideally fosters an environment of interaction, collaboration, and innovation. As private offices size and location in workplaces have historically been a signifier of employee status, establishing open plan offices has worked to eliminate these traditional hierarchies and again, break down barriers to communication.

Who’s doing it?

Many large Australian organisations have jumped on board the open plan train, particularly in new commercial precinct Barangaroo, where anchor tenants such as Westpac, Gilbert + Tobin, KPMG, and the aforementioned Swiss Re have all embraced open plan offices. A key objective of this shift has also been embracing technology, converting many more processes and documents to digital systems. This enhances open plan layouts, as all work is accessible in the office regardless of whether an employee is at their workstation or not.

But it’s not for all workplaces…

However, new research findings and media pieces on open plan offices have promoted the idea that open plan offices may not be for everyone. Among the many concerns about the high levels of worker dissatisfaction, the main issues workers have are the increased levels of noise and distraction, and the lack of privacy. Many staff report attempting to combat these problems by wearing headphones and hiding out in meeting rooms, which isn’t ideal, or a permanent solution. Understanding the type of work employees are completing and how they can best do this is a key consideration in planning an office layout. A Gensler Workplace Survey found that modern workplace effectiveness is now geared towards quiet, concentrated work and less towards collaboration. It is also worth keeping in mind that while discussion may increase, it’s not necessarily going to be work-related – and not everyone in the office wants to hear about last week’s episode of Game of Thrones! It has been reported that germs are spread much more easily, with employees taking 62 per cent more sick days following moving into an open plan layout.

These factors are said to be contributing to lower peace of mind of staff, and increasing stress. Employees experiencing stress and discomfort are likely to withdraw, weakening at best, and eroding at worst, the culture and relationships between colleagues.

Make an informed decision

The most important question to ask of office space layout is, how will it impact the costs, culture, and revenue of my company? A reduced space requirement and lower rents may be good for your costs, but will the detriments of an open plan arrangement be harmful to your culture, and as a result, your revenue? Valuing the interests of employees, the work they do, and how best they do it is essential to foster collaboration naturally while enhancing staff performance and satisfaction.

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