The challenge of an open-plan office

13 April 2023

Current ways of working revolve around what Deloitte insight describes, as “true collaboration”. 

Open-plan offices have been designed with this in mind for many years. And as a result, they have been linked to enhanced team communication and socialisation at work, all of which positively impact employee productivity. More recent research by Cambridge University challenges this view, suggesting that open-plan offices can in fact disrupt workflow, increasing multi-modal stress and hampering performance and productivity. 

So, do open-plan offices present as many challenges as advantages to those working from the office today?  Almost 40 years on from when old-fashioned cubicles started to disappear, the argument for quiet personal space has resurfaced. 

Challenges of open-plan space

Lack of privacy
Open-plan offices are often associated with a lack of personal space and privacy. While they are great for socialising and building awareness of work going on across different teams, they can make online meetings challenging and disrupt focused work. After all, we all need our own space sometimes. Forbes suggests that colleagues can feel forced to socialise with others and constantly watched, adding to their workday pressures. 

Hot desking
Hot desking was introduced to ensure businesses could optimise their office space. The idea of sharing desk space not only avoided the pitfall of desks sitting empty, but also provided the opportunity of a change of environment to break monotony for colleagues. Moving around the workspace to interact with various colleagues across different teams aimed to enhance creativity, create more ‘water cooler’ moments and ultimately drive innovation and productivity. However, the flip side of this is a lack of structure and stability. Colleagues report wanting to feel some sense of “sameness” in the office, and hot desking does little to facilitate this. Not having a dedicated personal space can tamper with a colleague’s sense of belonging in the company, negatively affecting their engagement. 

Increased stress
Cambridge University research has found that open-plan offices lead to increased distractions, sensory overload and multi-modal stress. Essentially, all your senses are triggered which can put you in a state of unrest, often causing anxiety and ironically, claustrophobia.

The Potential Solution:

Cubicles 2.0: Focus booths
Could bringing back the good-ol’ cubicles from the 80s be a solution to the challenges of an open-plan office? According to Meta, it is, with their revamped cubicle, “The Cube”, beginning to replace their open-plan offices. Their cubicles strike a good balance between collaboration, socialisation and focused work. They provide privacy and isolation, but their curved design also allows social interactions (as they aren’t totally closed off from the office). A picture containing indoor

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Modern offices are starting to follow similar patterns with the introduction of focus booths in their space. At Kerr, we are extremely careful to avoid the archaic cubicle-farm layout while incorporating physical barriers in the office. Our focus booths aim to facilitate productive isolation, alongside creative collaboration spaces.

What’s more, with an increased number of colleagues who identify as neurodiverse, particularly those with ADHD, autism, dyscalculia and dyslexia, entering the workspace, an open-plan office design can trigger them, especially with loud noises and commotion. Providing booths like “The Cube” can help cancel out noise and eliminate surrounding chaos. Our neurodiverse designs cater to these needs, ensuring comfort and efficiency for all colleagues. . 

Modern workspace design

Having a modern workspace design that incorporates both, an open plan and focus areas, is likely to become the practical solution. Areas within the office space can be designed to serve various needs, be that absolute concentration or collaboration. 

When it comes to modernising your workspace for your colleagues, one size doesn’t fit all. At Kerr, we understand the need to decipher the needs of your people and your business and design an office with this in mind.

Get in touch today to discuss our culture/office audit, helping guide the future use of your office space.  

To find out more about how we can transform working lives, get in touch with our experienced team here.

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