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We're having the wrong conversations about open plan

By Riley Flanigan - posted Friday, 8 November 2019

You're at your desk. Your computer is on. The coffee is taking hold and you've weathered the morning's small talk (Pete's divorce continues). With any luck, the not-so-passive aggression of your high-vis, noise cancelling headphones will deter any predacious chitchat.

You finally settle in to write. Just as your thoughts begin to coalesce, your inbox is invaded. One email is flagged as urgent - damn it Susan, if everything's urgent, nothing is. It's a quick fix and she's cc'd the Director for no reason, so you take 15 minutes to write a professional-ish response. Right, back to writing - where were you again? Your phone buzzes angrily against paper, reminding you of the email you just read. You take the time to clear it up anyway, because the idea of an unopened email (just sitting there) offends you at a biological level.

Ah. Blissfully clear of notifications - this must be how our grandparents felt. But what's this? A LinkedIn notification? LinkedIn's let you down before, but maybe this time… Nope, just your high school friend's dad endorsing you for "problem-solving". Thanks Alan, but I don't need you to lie for me. Your phone rings, Susan again - she couldn't be bothered to read your response, so she's coming over to talk in person. Meanwhile, you're 11 words into a 200 page document and you know those 11 words won't make the final cut. The endless parade of tiny interruptions and interactions keeps the work from the forefront of your thoughts. You can't remember the idea you had a few minutes ago that was so good you knew you didn't need to write it down. Then, muffled through your headphones you hear "Get up to much on the weekend?" It was a Wednesday.


Open Plan is not popular right now

If you Google "Open Plan office articles" you'll need some free time if you want to find a positive take. The general concept of Open Plan has been taken down by most major news outlets, and for good reason - the case against Open Plan is fairly damning.

A 2013 study found that workers in Open Plan environments are frustrated with distractions and a lack of privacy. Notably, the study found that lack of interaction was not a problem that workers wanted solved, while enclosed private offices performed better in most aspects of the performance criteria. An Exeter University study found that open plan offices show a 32% reduction in employee wellbeing and a 15% reduction in productivity. Similarly, a 2011 Danish study found that workers in Open Plan offices take 62% more sick days than workers with private offices. In 2017, leaked accounts circulated of Johny Srouji, Apple's Senior Vice-President of hardware technologies, refusing to work in their new Fosters + Partners-designed open plan campus, fearing for his team's productivity.

Despite the evidence, most new offices are Open Plan

The air-conditioned despair of the cubicle farms iconically depicted in the 1999 film Office Space was at the cusp of a cultural backlash, cementing the Open Plan office as the default in workplace design. Now, according to Gallup's State of the American Workplace Report, around 70% of U.S. offices use some type of open floor plan. Major players in Silicon Valley and the financial sector have adopted Open Plan, including Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express. In recent years Facebook went all in on Open Plan and enlisted Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, with provision for 3,000 engineers. Meanwhile, the eternally progressive Fins are implementing Open Plan in schools.

Distraction has never been more at hand


In the age of the smartphone, the concept of boredom has been ostensibly eliminated from our lives. Coining "The arms race for attention", former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris breaks rank with Silicon Valley, warning that every notification, every menu item, every sound, every animation is painstakingly geared to hold our attention for as long as possible. Silicon Valley's ideological crusade to bring the world together inadvertently put slot machines in the pockets of an entire civilisation and we're only just coming to terms with how much they've changed us. In 2019, relief from this constant state of distraction no longer happens naturally, unless we seek it out.

We've reached "Peak Connectivity"

Seamless, effortless communication has been somewhat hamfistedly held up as the fundamental principle for improving productivity, with the assumption that More Connected = Better Everything. But human beings are not perfect machines, our time and attention are finite resources that our minds are constantly rationing. With the first generation of smartphones now more than a decade behind us, the trade-offs have begun to emerge. A 2012 study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60% of working hours engaged in electronic communication and internet searching, with close to 30% of a worker's time dedicated to reading and answering email alone. Now, newer attention-hungry communication tools like Slack and Skype are becoming more common in the workplace, expanding their presence into our remaining private moments.

We're not doing "Deep Work" and that should concern us

Bill Gates famously secludes himself in a lakeside cottage for "Think Weeks" twice per year to focus his attention and think big thoughts, leading to some of Microsoft's most important breakthroughs. The prolific writer and theorist Carl Jung would retreat for several months of each year in a remote cottage, allowing himself the mental breathing room to wrestle with obscure and esoteric concepts. Woody Allen has famously never owned a computer, and between 1969-2013, wrote forty-four films on a typewriter, taking home twenty-four academy award nominations.

Writing in Deep Work, Georgetown Associate Professor of Computer Science, Cal Newport synthesises the habits of highly productive people with a range of studies and broader trends to argue that the ability to produce valuable, original work hinges upon achieving long periods of uninterrupted concentration. Newport hypothesises that in today's rapidly changing economy, where constant disruption and uncertainty is the norm, the ability to focus and perform "Deep Work" has never been more valuable, or in shorter supply.

Different styles of work are sensitive to Open Plan

What should be prioritised in driving workplace design, seamless collaboration or secluded concentration? The short answer is neither - there's no one-size-fits-all template for the workplace.

When examining workplace design through the lens of Deep Work, it is unsurprising that journalists hate Open Plan. Deep Work-intensive tasks like writing and investigative journalism chafe against Open Plan because they require a degree of concentration and focus not regularly required of other professions. However, the fact that you can easily model in AutoCAD, Rhino or Illustrator while listening to a podcast or audiobook - a feat which utterly cripples the task of writing, suggests that different styles of work are sensitive to different environments.

Put more simply, an architecture studio should be spatially different from a newsroom, but we already knew that. Gearing the balance of spaces to suit the needs of the workplace is… surprise... better for the workplace. If this so fundamental, why is Open Plan so ubiquitous?

Open Plan workplaces are cheap

Employers will always lean towards Open Plan because of its spatial efficiency and inherent low cost. It's no accident that the most widely-implemented workplace model also happens to be the cheapest and the most flexible. The cold reality of economics will forever be a fixed ceiling on the generosity of a floor plan, with many workplaces scarcely designating enough space for meetings, let alone secluded concentration. With each ill-considered floor plan, the original ideals of Open Plan have been eroded away and perverted, leaving the workplace occasionally torturous and consistently mediocre.

It could be argued that because of this innate tension, most workplaces will have some latent demand for spaces that allow Deep Work. Even production-heavy professions can have detail-intensive quality assurance components that would benefit from sanctuary spaces. Despite the need for these spaces, in recoiling from the hive of cubicles, we somehow find ourselves elbow-to-elbow in "The Pit" - a hive without walls. Not all revolutions lead to a better world.

Place is only one piece of the puzzle

In Deep Work, Newport offers a no-shortcuts, holistic approach for the individual to improve their output. Heavier on discipline than design, it involves developing proactive routines and mental practices, disconnecting from technology, with commentary on Environment as but one leg of the stool. Scaling a pure interpretation of Newport's Deep Work to the workplace would require specific conditions in management and culture to come together. But architecture has always been limited by human behaviour. If Newport's notion of Deep Work is the lightning we're trying to capture in a bottle, designers need to make sure that the bottle will perform on cue.

Designers need to advocate for the right balance of spaces

Scaling the lessons of Deep Work to the workplace is not without resisting factors. As a general principle, designating separate space for Deep Work will reduce the amount of workers per square metre, and tying vague and intangible improvements in productivity to design can be a tough sell. Sweatshop-style Open Plan does however appear to be more common than it ought to be, and certain industries could be suffering needlessly as a result.

If a profession's core output demands Deep Work (like journalism), the importance of spaces that enable Deep Work has to be paramount in the mind of the client. In the research phase of the design process, analysis should reflect how much of the workforce's time is engaged in complex tasks, with strategies advocating accordingly. In this way, responsibility for the overprescription of Open Plan falls on the shoulders of designers for failing to push for a more nuanced balance of sanctuary spaces.

Whatever the right balance is, it is self-evident that the New York Times shouldn't have the same floor plan as a Nike Factory. Creatives shouldn't be forced to leave the office to brainstorm. Writers shouldn't need construction-grade headphones and an Adderall addiction to do their job.

For what it's worth, I wrote this at home.

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About the Author

Riley Flanigan is an Australian urban designer and freelance writer with an emphasis on finding common threads between urban planning, political, cultural and economic policy matters. In addition to writing opinion pieces, he finds creative expression in standup comedy, performing in clubs and bars around Brisbane.

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