Open-plan workspaces: Is it right for you?

by Cameron Edmond09 Sep 2013

The want for flexible working arrangements is rising. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 40% of Australian workers expect flexibility and a level of control in the hours they work. While in some cases this may manifest as flexitime and teleworking, other organisations are instead opting for more open-plan offices to increase freedom within the workplace and promote an element of “life” brought to work.

In extreme cases, some organisations are fitting their workspaces with arcade machines (such as Adobe’s Sydney headquarters), or installing swings, such as Silicon-Valley based Box.

More commonly, however, this simply means a re-shaping of the workspace to promote openness and relaxed working environments, featuring open-plan spaces and lounge areas, as well as private meeting areas.

Jeremy Keane, managing director of corporate health management organisation Injury Treatment, told HC these spaces allow office workers to feel more comfortable in where they work, increasing productivity.

“Some workers may be able to think more clearly and be more creative in a working environment which is not traditional,” he added.

These offices provide the perception of a ‘flatter’ corporate structure, due to easy access to team leaders and managers. Adding a level of control and portability to the working environment can mean employees are able to move around more, and spend less time sitting in one spot – potentially increasing health.

However, the collaboration fostered by open-plan workspaces can negatively impact productivity, as well. Many workers in the US feel open plan offices create a cacophony of human and electronic noise which reduces their ability to concentrate. Additionally, Jake Breeden, management thinker at Duke Corporate Education, told Business Insider that reliance on teamwork can create “learned helplessness”, where managers fear making decisions without consulting the entire workforce.

A “groupthink” environment of conformity and mediocrity can manifest as workers feel pressured to agree with the other workers. This is the antithesis of creativity.

Keane acknowledged the problems that may arise from open plan spaces, but explained most have methods to combat this. “A lot of flexible working environments also have ‘break-out areas’ or meeting rooms. These areas can offer workers the opportunity for solitude or privacy if required,” he said. “It is advisable to offer an environment that stimulates open collaboration. However, also provide a facility for privacy where the requirement for solitude or private conversations is catered for.”

Ergonomics and health are also important consideration when offering these workspaces. Keane recommended that employers put equipment in place to improve ergonomics with mobile devices, such as plug in keyboards and laptop raisers, as well as incorporating ‘micro breaks’ to allow employees to stretch and reset their postures.

Open plan workspaces may also not be suitable for call centre environments where computer and phone equipment is better to be in fixed locations, predictable access to team members is needed, and roles that are mostly computer based (due to ergonomics and safety).


Do you work in an open-plan office? How has it effected your workforce?


  • by martin english 10/09/2013 3:45:14 PM

    "Open Plan Office" is just a modern word for the modern factory. Designed for and perpetuated by a management style that treats everything (and everybody) inside the factory as a commodity.

  • by Al 17/09/2013 3:30:03 PM

    I'm not sure where you work Martin but I think that's a little extreme! I'd like to think not all employers are think that way.

  • by Deborah 7/01/2014 4:33:52 PM

    I was recently taken through the Microsoft Offices at Nth Ryde and was really impressed by what they have achieved with their open plan office design. Their layout is tailored to supporting how their people work and was a really nice space - not "modern factory" at all.

    Well done Microsoft!

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