How to design an open plan office design that works

Poorly designed open plan offices have a negative effect on productivity, which can fall by as much as 66%, according to experts at the recent British Council for Offices‘ (BCO) Annual Conference in Amsterdam.

Sound expert Julian Treasure told the conference that the number one complaint from office workers is noise, and it’s been estimated that if sound isn’t taken into consideration, productivity could fall by as much as 66%.

Ironically, too little noise can be as counter-productive as too much. Treasure said background noise is essential in order to deliver an element of privacy for workers, and that an ambient decibel of 45-55 (equivalent to the noise of a babbling brook, bird calls, light traffic, background music and low conversation) was the “sweet spot” to aim for.

Also on the panel was Katrina Kostic Samen, MD of an office design company, who argued that in addition to dealing with problems associated with noise, an effective open plan workplace needs to cater for the personalities of the workforce it’s being designed for. She’s found success by designing offices with separate areas which offer choices to suit the radically different working practices of introverts and extroverts, which can “increase productivity, pride and sense of community”. Extroverts, for instance, like to have everything in full view where they can talk, share ideas and “be loud”. Introverts on the other hand, value privacy, space to be able to think things through, and to choose when to engage with others.

To find out more about the way introverts work best, it’s worth looking at one of the Top 20 most watched TED Talks, ‘The Power of Introverts’ by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Reducing disturbance

In a recent article about open plan working in academia, Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire estimated that people in open-plan offices can lose up to 86 minutes a day as a result of disturbances and distractions. She argued that people who work in open-plan offices are less healthy, typically experiencing more headaches, fatigue and stress-related illness, and are at increased risk of infectious diseases. She concludes that “rather than increase the flow of information and boost cohesion, open-plan offices reduce effective communication between colleagues”.

Her solution to the problem is to have flexible working spaces and practices which are designed to accommodate individual working preferences.

The Estates Manager at the University of Sunderland successfully introduced flexible open plan working space in the University’s science complex. The complex was designed with a hub of small, private meeting spaces, as well as informal and friendly soft-seating areas, break-out spaces and meeting tables. Staff were fully consulted about the new design in order to make it an inclusive project. In addition to creating a more productive working space, the university has also been able to save money – the new design has resulted in a reduction in space per staff member from over 11m2 to 7m2. At an approximate cost of £100 per square metre to run the building, this represents a considerable saving.

From the sublime to the ridiculous

If you really can’t stand the thought of working in an open plan office, one company has taken private office space to the extreme. Some of London’s old telephone boxes are about to be converted into ‘micro offices’ which will provide printers, scanners, screens, WiFi and even tea and coffee…but no chairs!

For further information about office rental in London and The City, or to discuss any aspect of your commercial property portfolio, please do not hesitate to contact Michael Boardman, or a member of the MB&A team, on 020 7118 3456.

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