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Is it the end for the open-plan office?

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It was supposed to inspire teamwork and greater efficiency, but study after study shows that the open-plan office – popularised by German workspaces of the 1950s – can in fact spell disaster for employees’ concentration spans, productivity, creativity, engagement and even general wellbeing.i The near constant distraction of others’ conversations even has a name in scientific circles – ‘the irrelevant speech effect’. And the workplace which takes steps to eliminate this disruptive background noise – using so-called ‘sound masking’ through ‘pink noise’, broadcast through speakers to make human speech less discernible - will be rewarded with employees who are 27% less stressed, 38% more productive and 174% happier all round.ii

The anti open-plan movement has been given new life by the Quiet Revolution, led by self-proclaimed introvert Susan Cain. Her seminal work Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Won’t Stop Talking sold two million copies worldwide in its first two years. Her TED talk on the subject has been viewed over 13 million times. And now she’s focusing her attention on the workplace, her Quiet Leadership Institute’s website recently asking: “What kind of sadist concocted the open-plan office layout?”iii She’s also partnered with office designers Steelcase to produce Susan Cain Quiet Spaces by Steelcase, a range of office pods. They aim, through special acoustics, gaze-averse windows and customisable mood lighting, to enable an environment in which the introvert - thought to make up 50% of the workforce, but only 4% of leadership teamsiv - can flourish.

“Open plans might work well for extroverts who thrive on social interaction to get things done, but for introverts, who can be easily overwhelmed by stimuli and who need alone time to recharge and stay focused, this kind of setup can have the opposite effect,” says one of Cain’s Quiet Revolutionaries, Elan Morgan.v

“It was difficult to concentrate and stay on task in the office with all the surrounding noise and movement, and I was often pulled away to consult on other projects outside my main work. Rather than engaging more with my co-workers, I had to withdraw as an act of self-preservation.

“Spending eight to ten hours a day in an environment that left me exhausted and scattered began to take its toll. When I finally had to seek out prescription medication to deal with the stress, I knew that something had to give,” says Morgan.

Satisfying both the need for teams to work collaboratively and the introvert to perform optimally, poses a challenge for environmental psychologists.

“Via a chain of psychological chain reactions, mood influences worker engagement; more positive moods link to higher levels of engagement. Designing for engagement is designing to make those positive moods more likely,” writes Sally Augustin, Founder of Design With Science.vi

A number of psychology studies are feeding this thinking. One, involving 47 office workers in London, found that when given the opportunity to arrange and decorate their own workspace, employees were 32% more productive than the control group allowed no input into their surroundings.vii Another found that curvy interiors and rounded meeting spaces triggered more satisfaction than rectilinear layouts.viii Too little noise is thought to have just as detrimental an effect on colleagues as too much: “In many open-plan offices, the argument is exactly the opposite - it's deathly quiet,” says Alexi Marmot, an architect and professor at UCL University College London. “A lot of open-plan offices are just rows of people only working at their computers. And people don't want to be there.”ix

In other studies, exposure to blues and greens has been shown to aid idea generation,x red to attention to detail,xi dimmer light to creativity, bright lighting analytical and evaluative thinking,xii higher ceilings more conducive to abstract thinking,xiii and the presence of plants to stress reduction.xiv Furthermore, workplaces with exposure to daylight significantly impact employees’ quality of life: a 2013 study found that those who receive natural light sleep for an additional 46 minutes per night.xv

Clearly then there’s a huge upside to getting the office workspace right, and one that everywoman partner Vodafone is heavily invested in. As the mobile giant moved its Netherlands outfit to a new Amsterdam location, it took the opportunity to beta test a revolutionary new office setup.

Step one was to canvass opinion and incorporate the thinking, not just of leadership but all levels of the organisation, into a temporary site ahead of the move into a permanent space in another part of town. Starting with a blank piece of paper was seen as a necessary move “to break out from traditional offices to something fresh, new, even heretical,” says CEO of Vodafone Netherlands, Jens Schulte Bockum.xvi

“Involving staff throughout the organisation gave us a kind of sanity check on what we were proposing,” says Paul Smits, Director of Human Resources, Property and Security for Vodafone NL. “Even more important, once we determined our design strategy and transition plans, it helped build buy-in throughout the company for major changes.”

The upshot is a workspace in which there are no assigned workspaces – everyone from graduates to the CEO works in the same collaborative layout. There’s even a space – called Club 11 – in which employees can eat and socialise against a backdrop of upbeat music and outdoor terraces. But there are also plenty of breakout zones for informal conversations, as well as ‘library’ spaces where talking and phone usage are forbidden.  

“What really surprised me was that working here was easy from the start. It felt good, almost natural, much more quickly than I would have thought,” says Bockum. “People are closer to one another, so it’s easier to have a quick chat about issues. People are communicating informally more than in previous environments and I think that adds to productivity. Mission critical information is passed between people more easily and people have the feeling that they’re on the inside rather than struggling to keep up with what’s going on.”

Such learnings fed into Vodafone’s new UK-based call centre, the office space for 900 employees.

“We held a number of workshops with our customer advisors at Stoke asking them to talk about, draw, and even build physical models of their ideal workplace. The finished work environment is very much a product of their feedback and ideas: whether it’s the style and layout of the desks, the chill room as a sanctuary from work, or the coloured portals that employees now walk through every day as they enter the building,” says Zoe Humphries, from the Applied Research & Consulting team at Steelcase, who managed the project.

Taking inspiration from Vodafone Netherlands, the open-plan main workspace allows for quick reconfiguration. There are also solo offices and training rooms with ergonomic seating that can be adjusted to every user, privacy screens for workspaces, controlled acoustics, and an average density of just over eight square metres per employee.

Its founder has turned its back on open-plan - the average German employee today has 30 square metres of personal space at work; their right to elbow room built into legislation.xvii But with this much office space in London’s West End costing upwards of £60,000 per year, it remains to be seen whether cross-organisational hot-desking complete with pink noise becomes the norm.

[i] onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781119992592.ch6/summary

[ii] hermanmiller.com/MarketFacingTech/hmc/solution_essays/assets/se_Sound_Masking_in_the_Office.pdf

[iii] quietrev.com

[iv] qli.quietrev.com

[v] quietrev.com/5-ways-to-love-your-office/

[vi] hbr.org/2014/10/rules-for-designing-an-engaging-workplace/

[vii] adobe99u.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/2010+jep+space+experiments.pdf

[viii] digest.bps.org.uk/2011/04/why-you-should-fill-your-rooms-with.html

[ix] bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21878739

[x] digest.bps.org.uk/2009/02/colours-affect-mental-performance-with.html and adobe99u.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/2012_lichtenfeldetal_pspb.pdf

[xi] digest.bps.org.uk/2009/02/colours-affect-mental-performance-with.html

[xii] sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494413000261

[xiii] jstor.org/stable/10.1086/519146

[xiv] sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494410001027

[xv] psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/12/20/workplace-environment-affects-mental-health/

[xvi] steelcase.com/eu-en/insights/case-studies/hallo-amsterdam/

[xvii] dw.com/en/german-workers-spoiled-with-office-space-for-now/a-2316854