How open is too open for a workspace?


Over the years it has become an increasingly popular trend in office design for the working space to be open plan, even with director level members getting in on the action.

The question is, how open is too open…? Have we lost site of productivity and the balance needed to create the ideal working environment.

As a workspace designer it is important to keep in mind how a team works as well as the individual…for example the ‘typical’ day to day life of a sales team, enjoying the hustle and bustle of an open space, may be far removed from the more concentrated finance teams or the HR teams and so on….therefore creating a ‘one size fits all’ open plan environment will not suit the entire workforce of many companies.

It is critical of course to understand that from a personal point of view, these individuals can be very similar characters, and enjoy the social scene much the same. Therefore creating a fun, relaxed canteen space is a key essential to the open plan being a success, one for all to migrate towards to play pool or simply eat lunch and have a good old chat….then going back in to their team working environment, ever more productive, having had the social element in a separate space, rather than believing that the social element of a workforce should be throughout the entire office.

This then begs the question: what else is essential in an office design to suit the needs of an entire workforce in an open plan space…?

Team allocation and adjacency is of course at the heart of this and perhaps positioning those more vocal, and those less so, differently is a simple start to working out the balance.

Adding to this specific quiet space to go to; booths, one to one nooks or hot offices, evenly spaced throughout an open plan design – as no matter what team you’re in, some times, people simply need a bit of privacy.

Similarly, creating zones of work spaces within an open space, such as ‘the library’ for a more quiet atmosphere utilising decorative sound absorbing screening/pods and a variety of desks and seating to suit different working styles, or perhaps ‘the lounge’ with a more comfortable seating type for laptop users to go to – this then all keeps the space open, but creates a selection of styles and environments that individuals can choose how they work, and even mix it up day to day in how they wish to do so…..giving that specific end user the control on how they use their environment when an open space has been created for the masses, making for a far better mind set. Furthermore, project rooms are ideal for the more vocal teams to go to and hash out their work away from the open plan – giving them the collaboration they need to come up with the genius ideas and keeping the open plan a more calm place to be.

Following on from this, as suggested above, the materials and finishes used throughout an open plan can affect the way in which people feel; if all the surfaces are hard, the sound reverberation is not absorbed effectively. If soft finishes are incorporated in the design then an open office can feel more comfortable to all.

This all being said I don’t believe the open plan should be, for lack of a better word, boring…far from it. The cogs of any workplace all out in the open, warts and all, does make for an interesting environment in itself (one that will likely find itself, one day, on the discovery channel: observing human nature, one species…many different breeds.) Without the pretence that for an office to be ‘cool’ it must all be open…after all, it is productivity that is at the core of any business.