Why Office Design Still Has A Long Way To Go

Why Office Design Still Has A Long Way To Go

With all the chatter about beautiful office design, it would be easy to assume workplaces have come a long way from the days of the cubicle farm. But recent research has shown this may not actually be the case.

Picture: Chris Jagers

In spite of increasing images of attractive workplaces from many large Australian companies, many of today’s workplaces are not well-designed. Poor workplace design leads to increased conflict and stress, which reduces performance and leads to employees resigning.

Workspace is the second largest overhead for most organisations and can influence productivity by up to 20%. This is why organisations are increasingly exploring ways of using the environment to support performance and innovation.

To accommodate changes in work and the changing needs of workers, the corporate world has seen a significant shift to activity based working or “free addressing”.

Activity based working allows organisations to save on their accommodation costs, fitting in up to 20% more people in the building by designing workplaces where employees have no fixed desk. The concept arose in part in response to the increased desire by organisations for collaboration and networking among employees, and secondly to the increasingly mobile and virtual nature of work.

Initial research however, has indicated growing concern. A 2013 global study by Gensler found that as few as one in four workers report working in an optimal workplace environment, and more than half report being disturbed by others when trying to focus.

Employees report being constantly interrupted, distracted by noise, and not having enough space. Cortisol tests conducted on employees have shown stress levels in quiet private spaces at around half those in noisy open areas.

Difficult to focus

Research on knowledge workers has shown an increase in the time needed for focused individual work, with the time required for collaborative work decreasing. The concept of the activity-based workplace may be actually producing counter-productive results.

When people can’t focus, the research indicates, they are less effective at learning, building relationships and at collaborating.

In many new offices based around the concept of activity based working, employees are using boxes and posters and plants, pretty much anything they can find, to try and create a space where they can actually get work done.

A recent study of 5,500 office workers globally by commercial real estate company CBRE showing that the ability to think and concentrate was important for workers of all ages; millennials and baby boomers want the same thing.

Innovation remains a top priority for organisations, and yet changes in workplace design may be negatively affecting innovation potential.

The clean desk policy required by activity based working, means that workers need to remove all of their work and belongings at the end of each day. Studies have shown that messy desks can increase creative thinking and serendipitous discoveries.

What research to date does demonstrate is that the design of a workplace needs to accommodate not only the type of work that needs to get done there, but also the individual needs of the people who are completing that work.

There is an increasing focus on objective measurement within the workplace, examining issues such as stress and productivity using physiological and neuroscience tests.

Results have shown employees can be significantly stressed with detrimental effects on both well-being and performance, though they may not report feeling stressed in self-report research.

More work to do

The importance of a well-designed workplace to support connection is as important as ever. A recent Harvard Business Review article reported research that showed digital communication does not replace face-to-face interaction and that remote teams do not perform as well as those co-located.

It is somewhat surprising to realise we actually haven’t worked out how to design offices that make a positive difference to performance for all types of individuals and types of work.

We do know that subtle cues in our environment can cause us to be different versions of ourselves, more innovative, more outgoing, more collaborative for example, but we haven’t understood exactly how the workplace needs to be designed to achieve this.

Emerging theories of integrative workplace design should help us understand how to design workplaces that not only allow employees to perform better and make them feel better, but that could fundamentally change the experience of what it means to be at work.The ConversationLibby Sander is a PhD Candidate, Founder Future of Work Project, speaker and author at Griffith University. She does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • I’ve been unhappy at work ever since we relocated to an open office, there’s just so much distraction and chit chat. I countered this by listening to music while I’m working, only to be told in my performance review that I should “lose the headphones”. Employers need to realise that while collaboration is good, it’s important to have your own space as well, since working alone has as much benefits, if not more, than working in a group.

    • I would really dislike an open plan; but then again I also find the closed cubicle thing a little annoying too. There should be some sort of happy medium. I dont think people should be able to peer over your shoulder at your workspace without you knowing but it should also be open enough to be able to signal/talk to someone across the divider if needed. I guess the culture of the organisation has a lot to do with what the setup is.

  • I once project coordinated a nation wide fitout of open plan offices for a large company. As far as they were concerned it was more about eye candy of how modern and funky each floor looked, and obtaining a green enviro stars than any real practicable means.

    Think 100+ people per floor yammering away on phones all at once, with no real sound barriers to reduce the noise of each person. Work place hell.

  • I work for a large university where the powere-that-be have deemed that no staff below a certain stratospheric level should have private offices. This has been sold to the staff as a way to foster collaboration (it’s really just about saving money on office accomodation). It doesn’t work. I’ve never seen any research that shows open office space encourages collaboration, but plenty that shows the opposite (as mentioned in this article).

    For academic staff in particular, open office space is particularly problematic – preparing lecture notes, undertaking research, counselling students, marking. These are all core activities that are hard to do in an open office area. The effect of this policy is that many academic staff spend less time at work (hence less time collaborating), and more time undertaking these activities at home. One particular faculty have refused to refurbish their office spaces for many years just so they can maintain the individual offices, the area is getting quite tatty, but at least they have some privacy.

    Personally, I’ve always worked in an open office area and it doesn’t bother me (I’m not an academic). That said, ‘activity-based’ work spaces where you don’t even have your own consistent desk are a shit idea.

    tl;dr. Office spaces need to be designed as appropriate to the work being undertaken.

  • I agree with most of the commenters, open plan offices are a nightmare if you do work that requires concentration and silence. Working near people that are managers or spend most of their time talking on the phone or having meetings near their desk is really counterproductive. It really is about ensuring that people with similar types of work sit together and those with more disruptive work sit apart from others. I overhear way too many of my manager’s conversations about things that aren’t really any of my business and I don’t like to listen to music as I often need to work together with members of my team and it can be very isolating when I can’t just pick up the threads of conversations as they happen.

    It can also be frustrating when a plan is too open and you have multiple different conversations occurring around you. You often find people running out of the area to try and find a quiet place to talk.

    I think a solution that hasn’t been really put out there would be to bring back the phone booth. There should be small 1-2 person, soundproof rooms with a small table and chair for writing notes and with a phone in them where someone can go to have a private conversation and be able to focus. If someone rings you on your desk phone and need more privacy or quiet, you just forward the call to a phone booth and go and sit there.

  • At my self storage, I prioritise the well-being of my employees and providing them with a conducive work environment is one of the factors in my priority list. From my opinion, when an employee is happy with his surroundings, he will be in a good mood and will work better. He will also get along better with fellow colleagues, thus increasing cohesiveness amongst them. One factor leads to another and it all starts with a favourable work environment.

  • When ‘open plan’ offices were first designed, they were spacious, having plenty of live plants, with distance used to create privacy; I think an average sqm per person was about 30 then. Now from what I hear its about 1/3 of that (that’s averaged across corridors, sitting space, collaboration cafe’s etc.).
    But I’d agree; privacy is essential and actually drives collaboration, in my view. I and my colleagues have offices with small meeting areas for four to five people. The break from noise and feeling watched means I relax, and when I want to discuss with others, I can get an informal meeting going in my office where we chat without disturbing others. This just can’t happen in modern open plan, where the stress of being overheard all the time, even if you’ve nothing to hide, kills productivity and probably social interaction as you feel so exposed anyway.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!