The Endless Debate: Open Plan or Closed Offices?

April 1, 2003
Jan Johnson

The Endless Debate: Open Plan or Closed Offices?

Continuing Education SeriesEntire books have been written about this subject, by good researchers and people much smarter than me. My goal in writing this comparatively brief article is to set forth what I believe are the most important points to help one navigate the open versus closed debate: the importance of framework, the necessity of process and the value of inclusion.

I also thought it would be helpful to contrast what appear to be polar opposite perspectives on individual workspaces: Michael Brill's advocacy for closed offices and Frank Becker's for the most open of open plan. I believe there is a very logical explanation for these seemingly conflicting recommendations.
Eight or nine years ago, a high-tech company hoping to recruit the best and brightest placed an ad on a billboard on Route 101, where it cut through Silicon Valley. The graphic was pretty simple—a door—and the text was equally straightforward: "Come work here and you'll get one of these."I always wondered just how many people responded to that pitch—how much difference did it make to someone to have a private office versus all the other considerations that lead one to choose one company over another?Certainly we all appreciate the meaning that gets attached to the private office. For many it represents accomplishment and status, especially in organizations that use a range of open to closed individual work areas, which are assigned on the basis of rank. For others it is sanctuary or territory—the one domain over which they can exert control, and gain the freedom from visual or acoustical distractions they're sure they need to do their best work or manage that particularly delicate client phone call.On the other side of the debate, we choose open plans to be more flexible and to better support change as the organization and its needs evolve. While open plan is usually cheaper, both initially and over time, we want to reassure ourselves that it also supports worker effectiveness and the kind of culture to which we aspire—that it can deliver, for example, a more open culture, more innovation through free-flowing communication, greater camaraderie or greater organizational adaptability.But are we deluding ourselves to think that environment creates the behavior? Are we sacrificing worker productivity for the sake of saving real estate and facility costs? Are we ignoring, at our risk, all those workers who insist they can't think, write, analyze or produce amid all that openness and noise?Is there a right answer? Or can we at least mitigate the risks of making this choice? Can we find the right path through seemingly competing goals of cost efficiencies, future flexibility, cultural or organizational "fit" and worker performance? Is there some sort of definitive evidence—qualified research or compelling case studies—that will tell us what really works—evidence we can also use to silence the critics (or at least persuade the skeptics)?The answers: no, yes, yes and some. There is no one simple answer. As a matter of fact, in this debate, the process used to discover and develop a solution may be more important than the solution itself. I'll try to cover each of the most significant issues that ought to be considered and give you a sense of how to navigate this question successfully and strike a workable balance between the tradeoffs. Also, I'll cite studies that support many of the decisions that make up one's overall strategy. We want to suggest that the issues associated with this question fall into one or more of four topics: cost, ease of future change, organizational "fit" and worker performance. We'll take them two at a time and review the arguments for open and closed in the context of each topic.The "Effectiveness" Arguments: Organizational/cultural "Fit" and PerformanceThese two topics, rather than cost and flexibility, should come first. As we talk about the merits of either strategy, cultural fit and worker performance establish an appropriate context. They cause us to review the thought process that should underlie this debate, or any workplace initiative: that ultimately, the business intents, goals and objectives of an organization, seen through the lens of their unique culture, should drive their workplace strategies.Michael Brill's 2001 pamphlet, "Disproving Widespread Myths about Workplace Design," uses a wonderfully simple graphic to describe a "business-based analysis and design process," one that is also advocated by many other workplace consultants.1...Chart 1Business

Brill's diagram eloquently makes the point that one should (and can) make the connection between an organization's goals and it's workplace by first identifying those goals, then determining what will cause those goals to be realized—what he called "success factors." Next we determine what behaviors support the realization of those success factors; and then determine what qualities or attributes of the workplace best support or foster these behaviors.

The process of interpreting each element of this progression is also key to the success of workplace initiatives. Every organization will be unique in how it establishes its goals or objectives, and even more so in how it translates those goals—that is, what its goals mean and how it feels those goals can be realized. How the organization translates its goals into workplace characteristics will (and should) be colored by the unique culture of that organization, and will reflect its values and the meanings it attaches to physical artifacts—like space. Having the participation of a cross-section of employees in the translation process not only makes the outcome more relevant, but also builds employee understanding and support.

Taken together, then, the goals of the organization, interpreted by representatives from throughout the organization in ways consistent with their organizational culture (current or desired), should form the basis for decisions about the workplace.

...Culture Is KeyRemember that organizational cultures change over time, especially in response to external pressures. Some companies deliberately undertake cultural change—to move, for example, from an internally focused kind of a company ("are we doing things right") to an externally focused kind of company ("are we doing the right things"). Others undertake new workplace strategies as a way to drive cultural change (backwards, perhaps, but if they follow the steps Brill outlined above they'll get there).

All the more reason, then, to be able to identify characteristics of a client's existing culture and interpret what new success factors, behaviors and workplace qualities would be characteristic of its desired culture. Or, put more simply, what behaviors or activities should it stop doing, start doing or keep doing to get from where it is to where it wants to be, culturally. It's not enough to assume, for example, that open plan will drive more collaborative behaviors. "If you build it" without tying it back to the business, including workers in the process, or making sure it's consistent with their culture, they may very well not come.

For more about organizational cultures, see my three previous articles in IS in the May 2002, September 2002 and January/February 2003 issues.

As an example, (step one from Brill's chart) an organization may define its objective as continuing to maintain market leadership. It may determine (step two) that it must become more externally focused, more market-driven and competitive, less complacent, to maintain its competitive advantage. (In contrast, another company with the same goal might decide to be even more internally focused on operational excellence.) That competitive behavior may play out in its sales force spending more time in front of and listening to customers, offering to provide customization, or faster, market-responsive product innovation—getting even more relevant products into the marketplace that much sooner.

Key behaviors or activities may then be identified (step three) that support faster product innovation, like using a cross-functional concurrent design process that will require much more collaboration with representatives from engineering and sales and marketing. Those work sessions (step four) might be supported by nearby project rooms or areas that allow the teams to keep their materials in that space, and make it easy to get together quickly. They might also co-locate design, engineering and product management in teams to make cross-functional interactions more likely to occur. This could work in or support the shift toward a culture that values innovation and risk-taking and results, is willing to experiment, is competitive and goal-oriented, and places emphasis on both growth and winning.

If you remember how Cameron and Quinn diagram organizational cultures (see IS, January/February 2003, "Workplace Design and Organizational Culture"), the above example could describe a company trying to increase the emphasis on the "Market" and "Adhocracy" aspects of their culture (the top two quadrants of Cameron and Quinn's matrix).

...Chart 2External Focus and DifferentiationFlexibility/
-Managing innovation
-Managing the future
-Managing continuous improvement
Adhocracy-Managing Competitiveness
-Energizing employees
-Managing customer service
MarketClan-Managing teams
-Managing interpersonal relationships
-Managing the development of others
Hierarchy-Managing coordination
-Managing the control system
-Managing acculturation
Internal Focus and IntegrationThis example points out the need to connect culture to behaviors to the physical environment of the workplace. But can we know what workplace attributes will really support the behaviors we're going for, and which behaviors are associated with what culture? Before we try to answer this question completely, let's review the basic premises of Brill's and Becker's work. Their two very different points of view raise interesting questions about the relationship between culture and workplace design. Worker PerformanceLet's face it—the most serious issue to those who now work in closed environments and see a move to open plan as a "take away" is that of acoustical and visual privacy—the ability to work distraction-free. Office dwellers cite concerns for the loss of concentration and the usefulness of being able to have small meetings in one's own space.Michael Brill's research supports this side of the argument. His team gathered data from over 13,000 workplace users across multiple industries and 40 business types, looking for those workplace qualities that have the strongest effect on individual and team performance and job satisfaction. He ranked the results in order of impact, the most powerful first2:- Ability to do distraction-free solo work- Support for impromptu interactions (both in one's workspace and elsewhere)- Support for meetings and undistracted group work- Workspace comfort, ergonomics and enough space for work tools- Workspace support side-by-side work and 'dropping in to chat'- Located near or can easily find co-workers- Workplace has good places for breaks- Access to needed technology- Quality lighting and access to daylight- Temperature control and air qualityBrill's report clearly advocates for the enclosed individual or shared office—making the point that workers are either engaged in quiet work, or in noise-generating tasks that would distract their neighbors' ability to do their quiet work. The answer, for Brill, is a combination of small "cockpit" offices (single or shared by a small group) surrounding an enclosed group work space (so as not to disturb team members' quiet work or the neighbor over the fence). He recommends main streets and other "destination" service and public spaces to encourage chance encounters, but suggests segregating these noisy, heavily trafficked spaces from the more removed work areas.His argument for this scenario has two bases: (1) data suggesting that the vast majority of workers spend at least 48 percent of their time in their own workspaces, doing computer and quiet work, telephone work, and having quick meetings or other noise-generating interactions (and therefore shouldn't have to travel to some other shared space to do quiet tasks); and (2) on the premise that open offices cannot be made distraction-free because of the reality of loud voices and the use of speaker phones and other noise-producing equipment.The report goes on to poke holes in the commonly accepted idea that physical barriers reduce the ease of communication, by citing findings first published in 1985 that correlated enclosure with effective support for communication. Full enclosure got the highest score of 98 percent, meaning it (spatially) did the best job of supporting communication (as compared to 58 percent for no enclosure, 56 percent for some enclosure, and 65 percent for moderate enclosure). But before you start building walls, let's compare this idea with Frank Becker's work on much the same subject.Becker's research suggests another perspective—that there is a lessening value of private work and an increase in the value of group interaction that is particularly relevant for organizations who value speed and innovation. In his 2001 paper, "Offices That Work," he put it this way:" The major reason for the office today is to bring people together: to socialize and share information; to inspire and inform each other; to provide guidance and feedback," (not just to give people a 'place' to work). "Relatively little of the work of most office workers requires deep, individual concentration for hours at a time. As the literature on computer engineers shows, this is true even for the prototypical job function requiring deep concentration. There do need to be times and places for such work in the office, but whether such places need to be assigned to one person for his or her exclusive use, or requires complete physical separation from others doing the same work, has been challenged by many corporations over the past decade."3The proponents of closed offices argue that productivity is based on the ability to do solo work effectively, which they define, in part, as working distraction-free. Yet as tasks, technology and problems have become more and more complex, organizations "have come to rely on teams to grapple with complex problems whose solutions depend on expertise from more than one discipline or department."4 Becker cites a recent study that concludes that "workplace interaction is highly valued:- Interaction is important during the initial stages of a software development project cycle.- Interaction is valued by computer engineers because it improves social relations, creates a consistent product, facilitates learning, helps in behavioral cure identification and creates a sense of team.- Computer engineers in open settings predominantly realize that they are sacrificing their individual needs for the good of the team, and they feel the benefits really outweigh anything they were initially worried about.- Computer engineers in closed settings realize that they are missing out on interaction and team collaboration and that a greater effort is required to interact, but they still would not leave their current workspace because their privacy and concentration are more important to them."5So how does Becker correlate openness with effective communication? First he argues that we need more precise definitions for words like "frequent" or "quick." Those in closed offices might describe as "frequent" e-mails and phone calls, supported by several meetings each week; for someone in open plan (and here he means low panels or none at all between team members) "frequent" is more likely to mean dozens of very short [face-to-face??] communications throughout the day. He suggests that these numerous, short exchanges allow for a broader, more effective range of communication, building trust and tacit learning and increasing the speed of decision-making. Acknowledging that age may play a factor in one's tolerance both for this type of activity level, he also suggests that younger, less experienced workers may see greater value in the almost constant exposure to their more experienced teammates.So who's right?Why do these two highly respected researchers in workplace studies seem to contradict each other? I believe it's because they are describing two very different organizational cultures.Brill's work could well describe organizations (or groups) that place emphasis on individual work and accuracy, while Becker's is clearly about groups who value teamwork, speed and agility6. (See the sidebar at left for profiles of each element of organizational culture.)The "efficiency" arguments: cost and future flexibilityBefore we close, we'll quickly cover the other two topics: cost and flexibility for change.Historically, open plan has been less expensive for both first costs and over time, in direct and indirect ways. As an example of direct savings, open office layouts usually allow simpler and cheaper schemes for building systems—we typically provide fewer environmental controls in the open plan than we would in a private office, such as light switches, temperature or ventilation controls. The less direct savings come from decisions we tend to make in tandem with open plan. Open plan allows a greater density than private offices (the lower or less opaque the "walls," the smaller the spaces they define can be without offending our sense of correct spatial proportions or triggering claustrophobia.) Over time, the cost of change is usually lower for open plans. Rearranging furniture is obviously cheaper than reconstruction. There are fewer interdependencies between the furniture and the building (most often related to electricity and cabling.) Yet, even though open plans are usually cheaper to change, costs still add up for those companies with high churn rates. Many companies have avoided or minimized these costs (for either open or closed) by adopting a universal planning concept—a one-size-fits-all approach—that allows an organization to move people, not walls or furniture. These "box moves" tend to cost $400 to $600 per move per employee, as compared to $2,000 to $4,000 for furniture reconfigurations, making them an attractive strategy for either open or closed offices.As appealing as those savings are, there are trade-offs associated with universal plans. By definition, they can't take into account the differences in the processes and activities of different parts of the organization when everyone is given the same components in the same configuration.7Having said all that, innovations in construction techniques and building systems are moving toward "plug-and-play" approaches that are inherently more flexible for all aspects of the built environment—from building systems to flooring to walls—and so will mitigate the complexities of change and, therefore, much of the costs.Choosing a strategy to house one's employees should be based on the goals and culture of one's business. While choices can also be made to foster cultural change, business realities such as the kind of work being done, the balance between individual and team work, and the kind of values and psychology inherent in an organization should ultimately inform the choice between open plan or private offices. Following the framework Brill diagramed will help to identify the relationships that should exist between a business's goals and its workplace. Using a process of interpretation and translation, with good representation from the organization, will improve the outcome and create understanding and buy-in. ...Four Archetypes Of CultureCameron and Quinn describe the characteristics of the four qualities of culture like this:
  • Clan Culture:
  • A very friendly place to work where people share a lot of themselves—an extended family. Leaders are considered to be mentors, perhaps even parent figures. The organization is held together by loyalty or tradition. Commitment is high. The organization attaches great importance to cohesion, morale and personal development. Success is defined in terms of sensitivity to customers and concern for people. The organization places a premium on teamwork, participation and consensus.
  • Hierarchy Culture:
  • A very formalized and structured place to work. Procedures govern what people do. Leaders pride themselves on being good coordinators and organizers who are efficiency-minded. Maintaining a smooth-running organization is most critical. Formal rules and policies hold the organization together. The long-term concern is on stability and performance. Success is defined in terms of dependable delivery, smooth scheduling, and low cost. The management of employees is concerned with secure employment and predictability.
  • Adhocracy Culture:
  • A dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative place to work. People stick their necks out and take risks. Leaders are considered innovators and risk takers. The glue that holds the organization together is commitment to experimentation and innovation. The emphasis is on being on the leading edge. The long-term emphasis is on growth and acquiring new resources. Success means gaining unique and new products or services. Being a product or service leader is important. The organization encourages individual initiative and freedom.
  • Market Culture:
  • A results-oriented organization whose major concern is getting the job done. People are competitive and goal-oriented. Leaders are hard drivers, producers and competitors. They are tough and demanding. The glue that holds the organization together is an emphasis on winning. Reputation and success are common concerns. The long-term focus is on competitive actions and measurable achievement of goals. Success is defined in terms of market share and penetration. Competitive pricing and market leadership are important. The organizational style is hard-driving competitiveness.Every organizational culture is made up of elements of all four archetypes. What makes each unique is the emphasis they place on each aspect . . . which changes over time as they evolve and respond to external and internal conditions. So, there are no right or wrong answers, only solutions that are more or less appropriate to the client's goals and culture.

    Jan Johnson is Teknion's Director of Workplace Learning, serving as a resource to both Teknion and external organizations. She works with current and prospective customers to examine the influence of changing work trends in the business environment and apply the most pertinent data from within and outside the industry.

    1 "Disproving Widespread Myths About Workplace Design,"
    Michael Brill, Sue Weidemann and the BOSTI Associates, page 10, February 2001. Published by Kimball International.
    2 Ibid, page 19.
    3 Frank Becker's October, 2001 paper—"Offices That Work,"—started with the intention to examine and understand the workplace strategies of "New Economy" firms. As he explains, "Many of these firms have since disappeared, but the value of understanding their workplace strategies remains valid: namely, to explore whether small, fast-moving firms' choices about how to shape their work environment provide any insights and lessons for larger firms. We think they do. One reason is that while the New Economy may be dead, the need for speed to market, agility and innovation remains very much alive." "Offices That Work: Balancing Communication, Flexibility and Cost," Franklin Becker and William Sims, October, 2001, page 6.
    4 Ibid, page 4.
    5 Ibid, page 8. Source: Dallas, 2001
    6 Remember that the organizations his team studied were all considered "New Economy" ( companies.
    7 There are strategies—usually referred to as "kit-of-parts"—that do
    minimize the variety of components, but can still be configured in
    multiple ways, creating a best-of-all-worlds approach that's easy to
    manage and yet responds to diversity.

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