Are We Nearing the End of Open Plan Offices?

For the past decade or so, open plan offices have become the norm. Fuelled by the tech startups who have championed collaboration and creativity, we have seen more and more offices – including even those on the more corporate end of the scale – breaking down their walls literally and replacing them with more communal-style desk arrangements. But over the past few years we have begun seeing a slight reversal; not to completely segregated offices, but reclaiming more of the privacy there once was. For many organisations, open plan offices are not the way to go; they may have got too excited and jumped on the bandwagon without doing their due diligence. In some industries, productivity is key, and often an open plan design is not conducive to that.


The purpose of open plan offices were to foster creativity, innovation, and to improve communication, and while this may have worked for some companies, many have found out over time that this is not the case for them. Instead, the result was more chit-chat and general disruption that arose from a lack of boundaries. For organisations that required extended periods of focus, this was almost the complete opposite of what they needed.


Studies have actually shown that open-plan offices have done the opposite of one of their intended effects – increase face-to-face interactions. This has occurred in a time where instant messaging use has also exploded. The result – employees becoming more withdrawn, trying to avoid social contact that could lead to distractions, and instead increasing communication through email and instant messages.


We are beginning to see multi-purpose rooms being constructed in offices for use for meetings and such, whereas for the past few years it would have been acceptable to have these out in the open in communal areas. We are starting to see more technology such as a conference room scheduling display being integrated into almost every office to help with the management side of this – another sign of the reversal of open offices.


While open plan offices may look more aesthetically pleasing, giving them a more spacious look and feel, this often does not resonate with employee performance. In fact, studies have shown that these such office layouts increase anxiety, stress, conflict, which inevitably lead to more sick days and higher job turnover. This really does go to show that while there are obvious benefits of this type of layout, it may not be ideal for every organisation.


Functional workspaces are, in turn, making a come back. Being able to alter the layout according to the ever changing requirements has its benefits, and can often mean that the office which was once being outgrown, may still be utilised for some time to come thanks to its improved efficiency.


We are not seeing the end of open plan offices, but rather we are seeing organisations beginning to fully understand what their needs are and working around them, rather than following what could be considered a fad that is not suited to them.