Density and partitions – keys to the good open-plan office

A recent survey shows that private offices are the least preferred type of workplace. The landscaped office, a sort of open-plan office, turned out to be the most preferred. This was a result that surprised Nigel Oseland, the British psychologist and workplace consultant who produced the survey. “This shows that open-plan offices are not bad per se. We have good and we have bad open-plan designs.”

Expert interviews Office

Nigel Oseland is a strong advocate for the Bürolandschaft, or landscaped office. It is a workplace based on an open plan but designed as a landscape with smaller semi-private areas, some partitioning including planting, quiet pods, breakout spaces and so on. The survey confirms his conviction about the landscaped office.

Nigel Oseland, British psychologist and workplace consultant.

“You can compare it with energy efficiency. You can’t save costs by simply turning off heat, ventilation and lights. Your energy costs will naturally be minimal. But people will not be able to work efficiently, so you don’t do that. What the facility manager is striving for is the optimal point where the workplace is comfortable enough to support people’s productivity at the least cost. It is exactly the same with space. You simply cannot squeeze in more people just because there are a few square metres free. You need to find the sweet spot. And I am convinced that the landscaped office is as close to the sweet spot as we can get.”

Two key variables for perceived quality

Workplace designs cover a spectrum, with open-plan at one end and private offices at the other. Nigel Oseland points out two key variables that determine the perceived quality of the workplace: density and partitions.

“Over the years there have been many media articles telling us how awful open-plan offices are. We hear that they are no good for anything; they are even toxic and make us ill. I think the media is referring to poorly planned open-plan spaces with high density and poor partitioning. But surveys don’t show that open plan is worse than any other environment. It is all down to how it is designed regarding density and partitions. And that in turn is related to cost.”

The problem, according to Oseland, is that the term open-plan office has been hijacked by high-density open spaces with rows of desks, where office managers try to squeeze in as many people as possible to save office costs.

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But surveys don’t show that open plan is worse than any other environment. It is all down to how it is designed regarding density and partitions.

The need for space

“What they forget is that space is our best friend. In these pandemic days it is obvious: we need space to minimise infection. It is the same regarding sound, air quality and the ability to focus and concentrate; space is needed. It all comes down to density and partition.”

But cost alone is not actually a rational argument against investing in a differentiated workplace design that is adapted for both extrovert and introvert personalities.

“We only need a five per cent improvement in our performance to pay for our buildings,” Nigel Oseland states.

Managers prefer desk sharing

Half of the respondents in the survey were managers – which makes Nigel Oseland even more surprised about the unpopularity of private offices.

“Actually, managers prefer private offices least. They prefer agile working and desk sharing, while administration and support staff definitely don’t like desk-sharing. They need a desk of their own. But they do like the landscaped office and to some degree private offices.”

Researchers on the other hand have a higher preference for the private office.

“They do not want open plans, but to some degree they accept landscaped offices and agile working.”

Again, the landscaped office is preferred by most, regardless of role, age or personality. This is how the different types of workplaces rank in the survey:

  1. The landscaped office
  2. Agile working/activity-based design
  3. Home working
  4. Open-plan office
  5. Desk-sharing
  6. Private offices

A broad range of open-plan designs

The survey indicates that there is no point in discussing “the open-plan office” as if it were a one-size-fits-all concept. The idea of the open-plan office includes a broad range of different designs and solutions. And different names for office designs and concepts don’t necessarily mean they differ completely from each other. Most solutions, besides private offices, consists to some extent of open-plan spaces.

“But when asked about open plan, people immediately think about the negative side of it, with seas of desks with no facilities and no partitions at all. I am trying to use the term landscaped office, or Bürolandschaft, to refer to a more organic and mixed-up space, rather than a pure open or closed space.”

Playing with different words

Nigel Oseland says there is some degree of overlap between the different workplace types described in the survey. To some extent they describe different functions and aspects rather than different designs.

“The landscaped office describes the physical aspects of the design, while agile working or activity-based design is connected to behaviour and how and where you work. It is in part a way of playing with different words. The activity-based workplace and the landscaped office are also open-plan offices. But if we use the term open plan, people tend to get discouraged. For me, the most important thing is to offer people choice and empower them to work wherever they are most effective.”

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We have seen the benefits of an agile working environment and a landscaped office for years. Now it has become a more urgent issue to put best practice into actual practice.

More relevant than ever

As a researcher, Nigel Oseland was afraid that the change in conditions due to the coronavirus would make the results of the survey obsolete. But his conclusion is that the results are more relevant than ever.

“Providing choice, flexibility, home working and a lower-density landscaped office are even more critical today than they were when we conducted this study. I hope office managers draw the right conclusion from the fact that maybe 40 percent of staff are working from home during the pandemic: this is an opportunity to lower the density. We have seen the benefits of an agile working environment and a landscaped office for years. Now it has become a more urgent issue to put best practice into actual practice.”

 

Text: Lars Wirtén

 


The survey Personal Office Preferences was conducted by Nigel Oseland, Workplace Unlimited, on behalf of Herman Miller and Workplace Trends, during the first half of 2019. Some 700 survey responses were received from a base of 4900 recipients.