The Truth Behind the Open-Office Takedown

March 2019
Morgan Mosher

Recent open-plan takedown articles all center on one, small study that focuses on the wrong thing. An effective workplace needs to look into more than “open office vs. closed office.”

The “downfall” of the open office has to be one of the hottest workplace topics to hit news feeds in recent months since ping-pong tables and cold brew. Articles are touting headlines with phrases like “the death of the open office,” “open office layouts don’t work,” and “open offices kill teamwork.”

So if these articles are true, why do I love my open workplace? Why are companies still building out new offices with open floor plans? For lack of a better buzz-word phrase: let’s dig into it.

How the Mania Began

These recent open-office articles, including those in Entrepreneur, The Washington Post, Fast Company, TechCrunch, Inc., and many other outlets, all stemmed from this one study published in July 2018. It’s long, funded by Harvard, and even has an abstract. So it must be a credible reference, right?

Maybe not. Here’s the basic approach to this study:

  • Two Fortune 500 companies studied 152 total participants before and after a transition to an open-plan office.
  • The study’s definition of “open-plan” is a workspace with no “spatial boundaries,” AKA no walls.
  • Some participants wore “sociometric badges” around their necks to measure communication and interactions before and after the move to open plan.

Let’s start with the most glaring issue: 152 respondents. I had more responses to my Instagram poll asking what I should eat for breakfast yesterday. And only two companies, both on the Fortune 500 list. That doesn’t allow for much diversity in company culture or individual work style.

What’s Actually Considered “Open Plan”?

The main goal of this study was to focus on interactions when there were no “spatial boundaries,” which essentially means a space with no walls.

But how do most people actually define open plan? The term can mean very different things to different people. For example, each of the images below are technically “open plan,” but their function and effect on communication are all very different.

open office
An extreme version of the open plan, with very limited boundaries and only one type of work setting
open office
Team tables, low dividers, and benches throughout break up the space and give employees more work settings.
open office
These workbench-style tables have way less defined individual space, but the hint of a spatial divide with plants (that doesn’t block natural light) provides a visual barrier.
open office
A very open space, but mobile whiteboards divide it, and the different styles of furniture suit a variety of employee needs and working patterns.
open office
Storage areas and soft seating break up the space and provide a few work settings.
open office
Another extreme open space with warehouse-height ceilings. However, the office is broken up into zones and neighborhoods with different desk styles and types of collaborative breakout spaces.

How do You Measure Communication?

The study focused only on employees who had assigned seating (a factor that has a large effect on communication) and measured only transactional communication. One group of the study participants wore a sensor around their necks that recorded conversations and captured body movement and location in the office. However, these badges were only used in the first company studied—meaning there were only 52 people wearing sensors for two 15-day increments.

What did the communication measurements show? When the company removed walls, face-to-face interactions and verbal communication went down, and electronic communication went up.

A few problems with the way they measured communication: A sociometric badge won’t show the quality of the interactions, only the quantity. For example, maybe the conversations were more concise and productive, which would lead to a decrease in the amount of verbal communication.

We also don’t know how the workspaces were laid out. Were teams sitting together? Were there areas for teams to collaborate other than at workstations? What were the core functions of the people working? Are the users’ tasks heads-down or more collaborative in nature?

This is just part of the missing context to make this study helpful. Without more information, it’s impossible to generalize that open plan wouldn’t work for you.

A Better Way To Measure the Open Office

To get a broader view at the open-plan debate, let’s take a look at the world’s largest database on workplace research, the Leesman Index. The Leesman Index is a global business intelligence tool that benchmarks the world’s workplaces. In a recent study, Leesman surveyed over 100,000 participants on their satisfaction with a variety of workspace types.

The LMI referenced in the graph below is a 0-100 “Leesman Index” rating, similar to a Net Promoter Score.

open office vs. closed office
Employees are generally equally satisfied with open offices as private offices.

The graph shows that open offices and closed/private offices can be both a positive and a negative factor in the workplace. But space alone is not the only driver in workplace effectiveness. The bigger difference makers are company leadership and user choice—I’ll save company leadership for another post, but let’s focus on user choice.

Leesman looked at user choice in a study with a sample size of over 350,000 participants (just a hair more respondents than the Harvard report). The results really dig into the user’s workplace and its effect on various elements of productivity and engagement.

workplace choice open office

The green line represents respondents in a flexible (open) office with high choice, and the red line represents respondents in a flexible (open) office with low choice.

Let’s remove the closed/private office designs and explore CHOICE as our key driver in what makes open office effective and engaging.

workplace choice open office
Choice is the biggest factor in determining workplace engagement and effectiveness.

An open office with low choice generally provides employees with one type of workstation. Unassigned seating can still fall under this category (called hotdesking). But even with unassigned seats, when all the workstations are the same, your employees don’t have the option to work in the setting best suited for their type of work.

An open office with high choice provides employees with several work environments to suit different activities (often called activity based working, or ABW). These high-choice spaces typically feature versatile and open-plan areas for heads-down work throughout the day, including huddle spaces, breakout areas, and a range of meeting spaces.

What This All Means for Your Company

The takeaway? Your workplace isn’t something to copy and paste, and one size does not fit all. A complete open plan may not have increased communication for 152 of the people studied from two Fortune 500 companies. But that certainly doesn’t mean every company should write off all types of open layouts.

The highest rated workplaces in the world are more than the physical space alone. You can have the highest-end office and still be left with employees suffering from the Mondays all week. The physical space is just one element of employee satisfaction. What matters more to your employees is how the space ties to management, employee preferences, needs being met, and company culture.

Your office design and layout should be a thoughtful and thorough discussion to get it right for you and your co-workers. And the conversation is more than “how many desks and where to put them,” or “open office vs. closed office.” My team and I can help you through this. Let’s chat—my email is morgan@t3advisors.com.

P.S. If you liked what you saw from Leesman, we are teaming up with them to host a few events in Boston and New York.