The unlimited workplace block

We are all familiar with the open-plan office: noisy, wide-open spaces with people crouching behind minimal screens on tiny, tightly packed desks. “I disagree. That is just poor open-plan design.” Meet Nigel Oseland, one of Britain’s most renowned workplace consultants and a strong advocate for the original type of open-plan office – the Bürolandschaft.

Expert interviews Office

Originally a physiologist, Nigel Oseland switched his focus to psychology while monitoring brain activity in the neurology department at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and went on to do research for the government’s Building Research Establishment. There, he studied the impact of environmental conditions in buildings on satisfaction, comfort and performance, while studying for his master’s and doctoral degrees. After 11 years he decided to venture out into the “real” world and became a workplace consultant. We asked him to explain what that means.

The meat in the burger

Nigel Oseland’s own description is quite juicy:

 “I think of us as the meat in the management-architect burger, and, yes, sometimes with a little cheese or relish.” Of course, he offers a more formal description as well: “I help organizations make better use of their space, either by using it more efficiently to save money, or preferably by using it to facilitate a culture or workstyle change and improve business performance.”

By all accounts, he is doing a good job. Nigel Oseland is co-founder of WCO, the Workplace Consulting Organisation, and has a leading reputation in the field. For the past 14 years, together with his wife, he has organized the Workplace Trends Conference, one of the most highly regarded conferences dedicated to workplace design and cultural innovation. If you want to discuss activity-based design, human-centred design, flexible working and agile working, Nigel Oseland is your man. But which of these terms should we use?

Flexibility on work

“They are similar terms with slightly different nuances. In the UK we tend to talk about agile working, which is about creating flexible environments that you can quickly adapt to the business. Elements of agile working include flexibility regarding work – where, when and how you work – and providing the spaces needed to do that. Sometimes people need a brainstorming room, breakout spaces, quiet rooms or teleconferencing booths. Instead of believing that all work has to be done at a desk or in a meeting room, you introduce a richer mix of work settings to facilitate different types of activity.” 

Five per cent improvement pays for the office

Admittedly this sounds logical. We might expect every office on the planet to follow these principles. But, as we all know, that is not the case. Still, Nigel Oseland is optimistic.

“I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years now, and particularly before the last recession, in 2008, I started to see glimmers of hope. People were coming to me and asking: How can we create collaborative environments, implement a culture change, and use my workspace to facilitate this?”

“Then we hit the recession”, he says, “and it was all about consolidating and reducing space. But I have seen the discussion coming back again. We only need a five per cent improvement in our performance to pay for our buildings. That’s all we are looking for. Five per cent!”

The importance of perceived control

Currently, Nigel Oseland is conducting a major survey on psychoacoustics – a study on how sound affects the physical, physiological and psychological parts of humans. “It’s not only about how we perceive sound, but about how we interpret it.”

Human interpretation of sound, and hence performance, is mainly determined by four factors, according to Nigel Oseland:

  • The task and work activity
  • Personality and mood
  • Context and attitudes
  • Perceived control

"Perceived control is a difficult but interesting one. Studies have shown that lack of control has a negative effect on performance. And it persists 24 hours later. If we feel we have no control one day, it still affects our performance the next day.”

Offering other places to go, fit for purpose, is one way to enhance perceived control. Another is to introduce an office etiquette. “It seems there is always one person with a loud voice in the office – everyone knows one of those people. We could agree that it’s OK to ask that person to go to one of the phone pods or to lower their voice a bit.”

We might be tempted to conclude that if everyone had their own room, all these problems would disappear and everyone would be happy. But, according to Nigel Oseland, that would not make people feel and perform better and businesses thrive. “That may be good for focus and concentration, but most organizations want their people to interact and collaborate as well.” 

Download a summary of Nigel's research >>

The landscaped office

Everything Nigel Oseland says is about seeing and listening to the human side of it all. If we create a dynamic, flexible workplace, where there is room for both introverts and extroverts, focus and stimulation, stress and laughter, we will achieve that five per cent productivity gain and pay for the entire office.

“I tend to refer to the landscaped office. Originally we had something called Bürolandschaft, which was a design principle in the sixties. It was a more organically designed office, rather than rows of desks. It had some semi-private areas, some screening including planting, and it may have used different floor levels to break up the space. It would certainly include quiet pods, breakout spaces and so on. My concern is that at the moment the trend is toward the stimulating environments, forgetting that 50 per cent of the workforce and our activities are on the introvert scale.” 

A hybrid bloke

Nigel Oseland himself seems to thrive at both ends of that scale. Part-time researcher, part-time consultant, he needs both focus and stimulation. His solution: no official office. “I have a small home office – a cabin in the garden where I can close the door. But then I have to see people. For that purpose I use my clients’ offices or a co-working club. I think I’m a hybrid.”

When asked to describe himself, Nigel Oseland shrugs and lets out a short laugh. “Well, I’m just a bloke.”

Nigel Oseland – what you need to know

Co-owner of a micro brewery: Haresfoot Brewery. “I try to be a beer sommelier.”

Dedicated canicross runner – cross-country running with dogs attached to the runner by an elastic line. “I have a big dog, he never gets tired, so I started with this in January.”

Gets motivated by sharing knowledge. “Learning is my primary motivator. Sharing is the second.”

Definition of work: “Any activity that contributes to the success of your business.”


Text: Lars Wirtén

Photographer: Rebecca Hemmungs