In business, the majority of senior management teams will question the past to inform the present – assessing processes and retaining what worked while making improvements where needed for a more efficient future. And all done with the aim of enhanced productivity in mind.

Our recent report Rethinking Workplace highlighted that when people are productive at work, they feel more fulfilled. Whether it be ticking off tasks on a to-do list, filing away actioned emails or putting a presentation to bed, there’s nothing like feeling in control of our workloads.

However, when it comes to achieving optimum productivity, the ‘how’ has long been the topic of fierce debate. And in the world of workplace design, office layout plays an important part. 

This was a core theme to emerge from our research, which found a potential link between productivity, peoples’ preferred working style and desired office layout.

The findings showed that while some people say they are naturally more of a collaborative worker, others would opt for working independently if given the choice – the split was 18% collaborative and 32% independent.

Despite this, much of the European workforce has no distinct preference on whether they work collaboratively or independently (44%), which perhaps alludes to a stronger correlation between workplace environment and task-based work, rather than personality type. 

With this in mind, we explore whether office layout has as much of an impact on productivity as we think.

The rising popularity of open plan   

Internationally, the most prevalent office styles differ from country to country. In the UK, for example, open plan is the layout you’d find in most workspaces and is also  what most people prefer, according to our research. Although only 10% of British workers would describe themselves as collaborative. This goes against the European trend of ‘independent’ workers most likely to prefer private spaces.

The UK is also amongst the least productive of the European countries we surveyed, as highlighted in Expert Market’s annual analysis of the world’s most productive countries, which ranked the UK 17th. In contrast, Sweden and Germany feature in the top 11, and are more likely to offer private workspaces to their employees.

In theory, open plan offices encourage collaboration. Rather than teams working in silo, they are designed to support impromptu conversation and discussion. However, in a recent study by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban of Harvard University, the relationship between open plan layouts, collaboration and productivity has once again been called into question.

 

“In the most physically salient and concrete example, ‘spatial boundaries’ at work — such as office or cubicle walls — are being removed to create open ‘unbounded’ offices in order to stimulate greater collaboration and collective intelligence. Does it work?” they ask.

“We see a close relationship between our finding that open, ‘transparent’ offices may be overstimulating and thus decrease organizational productivity.”
Ethan S. Bernstein & Stephen Turban Tweet this

Noisy neighbours

‘Overstimulation’ could relate to both audio noise and visual distraction. Our research showed the former to be the number one concern in Europe.  

Therefore, considering that noise travels, it’s understandable that open plan spaces could create excessive distractions, especially for those preferring to work independently.

Across Europe, this is the most pressing complaint for 26%. And in France, we found that 30% of the office working population is concerned by noise in their current place of work – far and away their greatest issue.

Yet, although French offices are most likely to be private, our research showed clear disparity between what people want and their current situation.

With the UK example, independent workers are seemingly the least catered for due to a lack of quiet space away from the main office hustle and bustle. However, in France, collaborative workers are struggling for open spaces that promote conversation, as most people identify as preferring to work independently, and the most prevalent office layout is currently private.

In their research, Ethan S. Bernstein & Stephen Turban argue that open plan spaces do not necessarily stimulate collaboration. Instead, they highlight that it may actually lead to less noise because of people working harder to create privacy.

“First, transitions to open office architecture do not necessarily promote open interaction. Consistent with the fundamental human desire for privacy and prior evidence that privacy may increase productivity, when office architecture makes everyone more observable or ‘transparent’, it can dampen interaction, as employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy; for example, by choosing a different channel through which to communicate.”

This suggests that employees may be more inclined to find alternative methods of communication such as emailing one another rather than speaking, plus close themselves off in other ways such as wearing headphones, which goes against the argument that open plan always results in low levels of productivity.

A balancing act

Regardless of where people stand in this debate, choice seems to be the key. And this was overwhelmingly evident in our research.

Although some people prefer working collaboratively, and others independently, ultimately, the working day is filled with a multitude of tasks that require varying levels of concentration – something that behavioural scientist Anja Jamrozik believes should inform workspace design.

In a recent article by Fast Company, she said: “It’s easier to understand this when you think of the home environment. You wouldn’t entertain in your laundry room, for example. In the office, it’s the same.”

“The two most common types of tasks are focused work and collaborative work, and they need spaces that prioritise and optimise the setting for each.”
Anja Jamrozik Tweet this

This also applies to different sectors. While some businesses may require more quiet zones than open spaces, others lend themselves to set ups that promote collaboration, such as creative firms. 

There is already a wealth of designers blazing a trail in creating multifunctional offices that cater to all working styles and tasks. And this is being achieved through selecting versatile furniture – from soundproof booths and privacy chairs for independent work, to trestle style benches for group tasks.

And while the debate between open plan offices and productivity continues, the main conclusion we have drawn from our research is that adaptability is key. If organisations opt for ‘open plan’ they must also consider offering quieter spaces or the option for home working. And by catering to as much of their employee base as possible, they can surely expect to reap the rewards in quality output and lower staff turnover, as a result. 

Camille van Emstede Segment Manager Workplace

The Great Indoors Newsletter

Latest insights, delivered straight to your inbox