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We're having the wrong conversations about open plan

By Riley Flanigan - posted Friday, 8 November 2019

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.

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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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