Since the advent of open plan in the 1960s, there’s been a healthy conversation about open versus private offices. The long-running discussion has been fueled, in part, by semantics. Even seemingly clear terms such as “enclosed” and “open” can have a range of meanings.
“It is a spectrum,” notes Tracy Brower, practice leader workplace consultant at Herman Miller, Inc. “At one end are completely enclosed, walled offices. Midway is systems furniture with standing-height panels and desk systems with seated-height panels. At the far end of the spectrum is a totally open area without any type of partitions to divide space.”
Very few companies today fall at the extreme ends of the private-to-open spectrum. Most are somewhere in the middle, using a mix of the several kinds of spaces. That fact has been apparent in the Future Pull workshops Herman Miller conducts. These sessions are based on the group brainstorming technique developed by George Land. Their purpose is to work with customers and their architect and design partners to envision an ideal office environment and then help them find out how to make it happen.
In analyzing the responses of over 1,000 participants, Herman Miller found the attribute “collaboration and connection” was top of mind. Respondents described this as a physical space that supports connection with others and promotes communication with them in formal and informal ways. Achieving collaboration and connection implies spaces on the “open” end of the private-to-open spectrum.
Yet, “retreat” was another attribute that made most top 10 lists. This was described as spaces that offer individuals one or more places to escape distractions and focus on work tasks or personal matters. This description sounds very much like the “private” end of the spectrum. Clearly, organizations desire a mix of spaces that let people both collaborate and concentrate. The million dollar question is: What is the right mix?
Context for the Discussion
The offices of the 1920s into the 1960s reflected the mass production mentality popular with Henry Ford and, before him, Fredrick Winslow Taylor. Rows of desks in completely open rooms became the norm. Largely in reaction to these “bullpens,” Robert Propst invented Action Office®, the world’s first systems furniture. Herman Miller, Inc., introduced this new way of working in 1968.
In his design, Propst sought to keep the ease of communication inherent in the bullpen. More important, he sought to temper that openness with partitions of various heights that were designed to give people more privacy. Systems furniture obviously caught on and is now a common fixture in most offices, particularly in North America.
According to a survey the International Facility Management Association conducted of its members, the current breakdown of office types is 59 percent open plan, 34 percent private, and 7 percent bullpen. *1 These statistics indicate the prevalence of a mix of spaces within the average company. The trouble is, no two companies are alike. Finding the right mix means that a facility and its layout must reflect corporate culture, structure, goals, and branding—all the things that make an organization unique. The question is this: What is the right mix for this company, one that will best help it achieve its goals?
It’s a question that’s more relevant than ever, as companies use every means at their disposal—technology, quality improvement, branding, and facilities—to solidify their positions in the global economy by reacting to changes in the marketplace more quickly, decreasing their time-to-market, and attracting and retaining the best workers.
Organizational Considerations: Strategy and Culture
The first consideration in the decision of the mix of private to open space should be alignment of workspace and business strategy. When Herman Miller’s former CEO Mike Volkema decided that in order to be competitive the company needed to get serious about speeding up decision-making, he made some changes to executive offices. The executives, who had been located in private offices in different buildings, all moved to a common area in the company’s Front Door space. The offices weren’t totally private but did offer some privacy, and they had standing-height privacy panels on all sides and a door. All opened into a “backyard” space—a comfortable, casual area shared by all the executives.
“Proximity and open space configuration enabled easier and faster communication within the team, enhancing both the quality and speed of our decision making. We also signaled to our employees and customers alike that leadership was approachable,” says Volkema, who is now chairman of the board. “While there were a few leaders who expressed reservations with the openness of our new offices, and the new distance from some of their respective operational areas, everyone quickly recognized the benefits in the performance of both the team and the organization.” *2
The move to the Front Door is a good example of using space to send a message—another consideration in finding the right mix of office types. Since the Front Door is part of the research and design facility, relocating executives there reinforced the message that Herman Miller’s ultimate competency and focus is innovation.
It’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that an open floor plan is good for everyone. But the reason it worked for Herman Miller is that the facility change aligned with the company’s culture and its business objectives. In general, work that involves joint analysis or problem solving, as was the case here, will likely benefit from shared space and tools. On the other hand, when confidentiality is paramount to a business’s success, based on the kind of work it does, privacy becomes a priority that can be addressed through a variety of spatial choices.
Another consideration is corporate culture. Companies should be intentional about using the mix of space to either reinforce the current culture or help change to a preferred culture. Executives at one global real estate and property management firm wanted to increase interaction through serendipitous encounters. They incorporated small, informal meeting areas into their facility redesign. They also provided a coffee bar, which was intended to give people a place to connect in impromptu meetings. When the redesign was complete, the executives asked their administrative assistants to schedule their meetings in the coffee bar.
Those initial executive meetings weren’t serendipitous, but they did model the desired behavior, says Brower. It wasn’t long before employees started gathering there for informal, often unscheduled, meetings. “The modeling was critical,” she says. “The Facilities department can do a lot to reinforce culture, but facilities alone cannot sustain or change a culture. All the company’s policies and practices have to align to support the desired culture.”
Other considerations include the types of workers a company has and the market it is in. The mix of private to open is likely to be quite different in an advertising agency, for example, than it is in a financial institution. The differences between organizations can be a result of how they define “open.” A firm in the oil and gas industry may define the word differently than one in accounting and law, for example.
It’s also important to think about a company’s stage of organizational development. When a company is first starting out, everyone knows each other and what’s going on. But at a certain point in the company’s growth (some put the number at 250 employees), structure, policies, and procedures need to be put into place to keep everyone heading in the same direction. *3
All these things factor into what makes the best mix of private to open space. Knowing the benefits and drawbacks of each kind of space can help companies arrive at the right formula.
A Spectrum of Choices, a Range of Advantages
The advantages afforded by both enclosed and open offices are real. First, let’s look at the advantages of enclosed offices. In research conducted by Babson College’s Working Knowledge Research Center, the enclosed office was associated with satisfaction with auditory/visual privacy, noise levels, getting work done, and job satisfaction as a result of the workplace environment. *4 Its main finding about the value of enclosed offices was “the confirmation of their value to those who prize privacy and quiet, and who must go ‘heads down’ into tasks requiring plenty of concentration.” *5
Office layouts can contribute to the perception of personal control, however, and personal control is a contributor to worker satisfaction. Private office dwellers have a lot of control, including control over when they are heard and seen (and whom they are seen with). In many cases they can also can control lighting and HVAC. Control is important because it has a direct impact on comfort, and the maximum control a worker has in a private office results in maximum comfort.
Research Herman Miller conducted found seven workstation attributes that all types of workers value and that presumably contribute to worker satisfaction. They are, in order:
A comfortable officeA sufficient amount of work surface area in the officeThe option to put the computer in the most suitable locationThe capability to keep work within arm’s reachThe capability to contain sounds within the officeThe capability to keep out distracting noises from outside the officeThe capability to provide visual privacy *6
Privacy is directly related to comfort and the capability to contain sounds within the office. But what do people mean when they say they want a comfortable office? That particular study teased the answer out, finding that the attributes of a comfortable office were: an office that allows me to express my individuality, the capability to support space for two or more people to meet, and the capability to control interaction with those around me. *7
Enclosed offices also convey status, and according to recent research, that’s the most important criteria for whether or not a worker gets a private office. *8 Ninety-five percent of the surveyed companies’ executives and 89 percent of their senior management were in private offices, a percentage they reported hadn’t changed much in the preceding 36 months. *9
How much time busy executives actually spend in their offices is, to some companies, beside the point. One leading global financial company had a hierarchical culture that was very effective, and conveying status was an important part of that. “They were changing the mix of offices by adding more open offices, but they still wanted to demonstrate status. Because less of that status would be conveyed through private offices, they wanted to find other ways for the physical space to demonstrate status and hierarchy, and they were very clear about that,” says Brower. Companies can also demonstrate status in other ways, including placement and size of offices, type of chair and technological tools provided, and flexibility of work schedule and location.
Whereas the strength of completely enclosed offices is privacy, the strength of a marginally more open office space, which can be created by adding windows, for example, or leaving doors open, is increased communication and interaction. The further along the spectrum toward “openness” a company moves, the more interaction and communication will take place.
The increase in communication happens on several levels. On a purely practical level, “speed of communication begets speed of execution,” says Dick Costolo, founder of FeedBurner (which provides custom RSS feeds to bloggers). *10 In a very open office, when someone takes a phone call from a vendor who won’t be able to supply a part on time, for example, others can overhear it. That can translate into more people being able to act quickly on the information.
There are times when people would prefer that coworkers not know what’s going on with their account or product or vendor, but those are often the very times that transparency is most important. It’s easier to address and fix a problem that’s identified and shared early. The same transparency can lead to empathy, understanding, and motivation. “When the engineering team can hear the support team constantly fighting the same battles on the phone, they have a better appreciation for the product issues,” says Costolo.
Working in an open environment may even change the way workers see themselves. According to the Babson research on networks, “More open work environments correlate closely to respondents considering themselves to be pivotal as both sources and seekers of daily information…although [the research suggests] people will do whatever it takes to get mission-critical information, regardless of the physical layout of the space.” *11
An increase in daily communication about concrete things like project schedules can reduce cycle times, and that’s no small deal. But open spaces can bolster communication in other, deeper ways, too, that can have an even bigger impact on an organization, long-term. Open spaces speed up informal learning on teams. This includes tacit knowledge, knowledge about how work really gets done (i.e., corporate culture), and person-related information and knowledge, all of which are important to social networks and collaboration, and the trust collaboration requires. *12
It’s not that informal learning can’t happen in companies that don’t use open space; it’s just that it takes more conscious effort and planning. Experts say to think of it as the difference between active and passive energy systems: both produce the same result, but the latter happens automatically, if you build it right. *13
There is a final type of communication that a more open office supports: creativity-stimulating communication that results in innovation. *14 It’s also the kind of communication most affected by separation. *15 Creativity-stimulating communication is what Continuum, a design and innovation consultancy, was after when it asked Sasaki, its design firm “to open up its [West Newton, Massachusetts] office and connect people as much as possible. ‘This office had to be entirely about creativity, collaboration, and process,’” Victor Vizgaitis, senior associate at Sasaki, told Building Design & Construction magazine. *16 Continuum staff members, who moved from private workspaces to open desks, worried their productivity and earnings would go down, but earnings actually went up. “Everyone works better because of the interconnections,” Vizgaitis told the magazine.
Reduced productivity is a common concern related to open offices, but particularly in team settings, the reverse is true. One study of software development groups found “the group that used ‘war rooms’ (shared rooms for teamwork) was twice as productive as the software group using private offices.” *17
Other researchers have found that “high levels of interaction and communication are linked to innovation and reduced time to complete projects.” *18 An example of this is the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Team-X. It has consistently reduced the time it takes to complete tasks for hundreds of projects from three to nine months down to a few days. Ethnographers who studied the team in action found that part of the reduction could be attributed to the absence of “a bottlenecked management hierarchy” and the presence of an efficient knowledge network that was both explicitly designed and naturally evolved. *19
At the heart of the productivity issue is the changing nature of work. Not long ago, many people were able to complete their work alone, without the involvement of others. Now, problems are more complex and a greater variety and diversity of resources are necessary to solve them. For many workers today, productivity is more about effectiveness (doing the right thing) than about efficiency (doing a thing right), and effectiveness requires communication. One study showed that one of the top predictors of job performance was “the ability to have easy, frequent, informal interactions.” *20
A final advantage of a more open floor plan is that it often costs less money than enclosed offices, although there’s less of a cost differential than there used to be, thanks to demountable walls (walls on a grid system that can be easily moved and remounted). Systems furniture can be reconfigured as the company shrinks or grows and as the needs of teams and individuals change. While it was not inventor Robert Propst’s intention that systems furniture be used to fit more people into a space, many companies see that as a benefit, particularly during tough economic times.
Mixing Private and Open Offices
From a design standpoint, a facility is often made up of both private offices and open offices. A company that does have only private offices might find the layout problematic: one study showed that using only private offices “shut down inter-group collaboration.” *21 Since most kinds of office workers spend about 70 percent of their time doing collaborative work and 30 percent doing individual work (engineers and software designers are the exception to the rule) *22, many companies find a blend of both kinds of spaces works best. *23
In order for this approach to be most effective, it needs to be well thought out. Who gets private? Who gets open? What are the criteria? Often space is assigned based on status or job function.
When ad agency Wunderman Canada (which was a mix of private offices and cubicles) revamped its offices, employees whose positions required confidentiality were the ones to get private offices. “It’s less about entitlement and more about the type of work being done,” said Don Crichton of the design firm HOK Canada, which designed the new space. *24
At one Canadian media conglomerate, managers who were entitled to private offices chose open spaces instead because they saw the advantages. “Being able to hear conversations is a barometer for them,” says Holly Kriger, workplace consultant at Herman Miller. “The redesign put them into the information loop, and they can make better decisions based on what they are hearing.” *25 In addition, it gives them the opportunity to persuade informally, build credibility at a personal level, and model behavior.
Some companies reserve their private offices for people who do heads-down work almost exclusively, e.g., accountants or software programmers, sometimes putting two or three people in each office. Hewlett Packard Asia has figured out a way of keeping space both open and conducive to heads-down work: It allocates large sections of open space as totally quiet zones—cell phones off, laptops muted, no talking or making calls, no music.
In Germany and the Netherlands, using “group rooms” is a popular answer to the private/open question. The rooms are designed to accommodate from 8 to 25 people regardless of the total size of a department, “a size, at a team level, where people can get to know each other well socially, as well as learning about their work-related skills and knowledge.” *26
Many companies in Japan have a similar layout. Each room is a ka, or department. Within each room are several han (or sections). Each han is composed of a dozen or so desks, all touching, so the effect is the same as one big table. This arrangement—based as much on culture as business practice—does allow the boss to be aware of what everyone is doing.
Providing Options for Places to Work
Traditionally, people have thought about the workplace as full of open or closed offices or even a mix of the two, but there is another way of looking at the workplace. Eco-diversity, activity settings, the new office landscape—all these terms refer to providing different places to work and allowing the worker to choose the place in which he can be most effective, given the work he needs to do right then.
Some people have compared this approach to a house or college setting. Each offers a variety of choices, and in both, people are free to choose. It’s an approach that “balances public and group areas with individual spaces, that offers choice and variety, that has at its heart the need to create and preserve and increase social and intellectual capital. The only way to encourage new ideas and remove the obstacles to planned and unplanned contact among creative people is to offer a new landscape in which to work alone or with other people.” *27
These varied settings might include groupings of comfortable chairs in entry ways, phone booths, small meeting rooms, “war rooms” for teams, a café with WiFi, touch- down areas, even banks of files that people can gather around.
Making Private Feel More Open
Many companies don’t have the luxury of renovating their entire space or building a new office building, however. Fortunately, it’s possible to achieve an ambience of openness in a facility that has mostly private offices. Suggestions include encouraging workers to leave their doors open, using lighter colors, integrating plants (to bring “nature” indoors), and installing windows or see-through panels, which let light in and allow for visual contact. In addition, the private office itself can be loosened up and lightened up by substituting freestanding furniture, e.g., a small table and something that offers flexible keyboard support, instead of the standard issue credenza and U-shaped peninsula.
More costly suggestions include installing atriums and escalators, which are effective ways to provide visual contact between floors and allow for “people browsing.” *28 Research has shown that the longer the site line, the better connected a group is and the more face-to-face interaction will result. *29
It’s also possible to get some of the benefits of an open office by designing “functional inconvenience” into the facility. Inspiration and creativity often happen when people bump into each other, so the goal is to be intentional about the adjacency of teams, the location of workstations, and traffic patterns to increase the likelihood of spontaneous meetings. *30
“Informal learning will be higher in organizations with space allocation policies that widen the circle of chance encounters,” writes Franklin Becker, director of the International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University. “Functional inconvenience assumes the journey counts. Walking a slightly longer and circuitous route is not a waste of time if the longer journey also creates more opportunities for chance encounters with people outside one’s own team or department.” *31
For those companies who decide that, given their culture and business objectives, “going more open” is right for them, there are ways to optimize the functionality of those workspaces for workers. *32
Use a configuration that gives workers the option of facing away from others or toward others. Or use curvilinear work surfaces that are easy to gather around at the front of the space. Some are inverting the office landscape—with higher partitions at the front—and adding a privacy door to add enclosure. This approach often includes lower partitions at the back of the workstation with “shutters” that can be opened for communication or closed for separation from team members. These spaces support interaction but also give workers a degree of control—a way to signal they are doing “heads down” work without being completely cut off from activity.Provide a variety of partition-like options for individual workspaces, e.g., moveable screens, or even plants, which can be strategically placed. While these won’t provide total privacy, they do allow others to see if the occupant is busy or available, and they help workers feel in control of their privacy.Manage acoustics through sound masking. The best sound-masking technology produces a speech-range spectrum that’s on the same frequency as the human voice and sounds like moving air or rushing water. This "pink noise" is preferable to white noise, which masks sound by introducing a broader spectrum of frequencies into the environment. Sound management is most effective when planned for in the early stages of design rather than as a temporary fix later.Add a padded file cabinet that doubles as a perch or provide guest seating that normally resides outside the workspace but can easily be pulled in when needed or used to signal when a coworker isn’t invited to linger for a sit-down visit.Add shared mobile tables that people can use to temporarily expand work surface space.Provide other group open or group enclosed meeting spaces close by that can be used on an ad-hoc basis. Again, the key is to provide a choice of spaces, as there are some situations that demand a high degree of privacy.Provide phone booths—small, enclosed spaces individuals can use to make private calls. In the absence of such spaces, people will commandeer conference rooms to get privacy.
Most companies today are moving further down the spectrum toward openness in their facilities. *33 From their change management work with a variety of customers over time, Brower and Kriger have learned that the possibility for success is maximized when companies undertaking this kind of change take the following steps.
Set the vision. Change is more acceptable when people sense there is a clear future they are moving toward.Get senior sponsorship. Supportive executives can prove through their actions there is a mandate for change.Offer the business reasons for change. People need to know why the change needs to occur, the context in which it is occurring, and how the changes will contribute to the overall business results the company is striving to achieve.Set and manage expectations. When expectations have not been set adequately or appropriately, people are more resistant to change. Set clear expectations, communicate them, and manage them on an ongoing basis.Give choices and control where you can. This makes people more open to change.Invite involvement in the change process. Involvement should be early, cross-functional, and representative in nature, and the process for decision-making should be clear during each step in the process.Provide people with the knowledge and skills to move toward the future.Recognize the “points of pain.” Change always results in some sort of cost or points of pain. Be honest about these and try to reduce them when possible.Honor the past and celebrate effort, progress, and results.Communicate clearly and consistently about why change is needed, what you’re moving from, what you’re moving toward, and how the features and benefits of the new space will help you get there.
When people move to a more open space, the perception is that it’s a loss for them, and it’s important to acknowledge that they are giving something up. However, a paradigm shift is underway; "my office" is rapidly becoming "my workplace," with lots of choices about where to work—e.g., group areas, informal spaces, conference rooms, private rooms, team rooms. In these cases, people are gaining freedom and variety.
Even with the most thoughtfully configured floor plan, people accustomed to private offices will still have to modify their behavior when moving to a more open space. It’s best if teams can discuss expectations before the move so members know about specific annoyances (e.g., the smell of hot food or people taking a shortcut through someone’s space) and then put them in writing. Teams that establish some general rules of play, write them down, and post them will still have situations that call for resolution of differences, but they’ll also have something formal to point to and say, “We agreed to this.” *34
The Right Answer Is the Unique One
The reason there’s still a discussion over whether an open or private layout is best is that either can be effective. A company’s culture, industry, employee population, history, and leadership all make it unique. That’s why each company must decide for itself if its facility should be predominantly open or predominantly private. How much do you value communication and collaboration? How much do you value privacy and concentration? How will you balance and mix these approaches? For whom—for which types of workers? For which level of workers? And, ultimately, what will work best for your unique needs?
Even when the organization’s answer is “collaboration, because that will get us to our goals,” there will likely be some variation within departments. The key is to be intentional about the tradeoffs. The most successful facilities—whether they skew open or closed—are a result of a company first considering its business objectives and culture or desired culture. Only then can a company know which mix of space will best support it.
1. International Facility Management Association (IFMA), “Space and Project Management Benchmarks,” Research Report #28, IFMA, p. 29. The data from 2006 is the most recent available.
2. Email exchange, August 1, 2008.
3. Franklin Becker, “Organizational Ecology and Knowledge Networks,” California Management Review, Winter 2007, p. 57.
4. Salvatore Parise, Michael Beers, and Tom Davenport, “Workspace Design & Networks,” Babson Working Knowledge Research Center white paper, October 27, 2007, p. 1.
5. Ibid., p. 6.
6. Herman Miller, Inc., “Worker Types, Worker Wants, Worker Comfort,” Herman Miller internal report, July 2006, p. 7.
7. Ibid., p. 9.
8. Herman Miller, Inc., “Project Ryan,” Herman Miller internal research document, 2007, p. 4.
9. Ibid., p. 2.
10. “No Offices,” <www.burningdoor.com/askthewizard/2007/09/no_offices.html>.
11. Salvatore Parise, Michael Beers, and Tom Davenport, “Workspace Design and Networks,” p. 5.
12. Franklin Becker, “Organizational Ecology and Knowledge Networks,” p. 43.
13. Ibid., p. 53.
14. Thomas J. Allen, “Architecture and Communication among Product Development Engineers,” California Management Review, Winter 2007, p. 34.
15. Herman Miller, Inc., in collaboration with Gensler, “When Groups Work,” quoting Tom Allen, Managing the Flow of Technology, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1977, slide 8, December 2007.
16. Jay W. Schneider, “Inspiring Offices: Office Design that Drives Creativity,” Building Design & Construction, March 2007.
17. Salvatore Parise, Michael Beers, and Tom Davenport, “Workspace Design and Networks.”
18. Judith H. Heerwagen, Kevin Kampschroer, Kevin M. Powell, and Vivian Loftness, “Collaborative knowledge work environments,” Building Research & Information, November-December 2004, 32(6), pp. 510-528.
19. John Chachere, Raymond Levitt, and John Kunz, “Can You Accelerate Your Project Using Extreme Collaboration? A Model-Based Analysis,” Stanford University Center for Integrated Facility Engineering Technical Report #154, November 2003.
20. Salvatore Parise, Michael Beers, and Tom Davenport, “Workspace Design and Networks.”
22. “Building 14,” an interview with Mark Golan, chairman of CoreNet Global, Bacon’s Rebellion, February 5, 2007. Accessed on May 6, 2008, at <http://www.baconsrebellion.com/Issues07/02-05/BaconQ&A.php>.
23. April 23, 2008, interview with Tracy Brower, Herman Miller.
24. Jay Somerset, “When the walls come a tumblin’ down,” The Globe and Mail, July 3, 2007.
25. April 23, 2008, interview with Tracy Brower, Herman Miller.
26. Franklin Becker, “Organizational Ecology and Knowledge Networks.”
27. Don Goeman and Rick Duffy, “The New Office Landscape,” SEE magazine, Herman Miller, Fall 2004, p. 16.
28. Thomas J. Allen, “Architecture and Communication among Product Development Engineers.”
29. Paula Edwards’ notes on “Understanding the Effects of Design on Workplace Culture” presentation by Dr. Mahbub Rashid, May 30, 2007.
30. Thomas J. Allen, “Architecture and Communication among Product Development Engineers.”
31. Franklin Becker, “Organizational Ecology and Knowledge Networks,” p. 54.
32. Herman Miller, Inc., “Interaction + Place,” Herman Miller, 2008.
33. July 2008, interview with Tracy Brower, Herman Miller.
34. Christine Maclean, “Seven Ways to Get Along in an Open Office,” Jugglezine. Accessed on May 7, 2008, at <http://www.jugglezine.com/CDA/juggle/0,1516,13,00.html#kit>.