Open plan, open mind?

Could open plan offices influence the way employees think at work? 

One New York business woman certainly thinks so. She has a private office, which looks like it belongs on the pages of a design magazine, but she says that this space is hardly ever used. Why? The answer is quite simple. She prefers working among the other employees where there is a constant buzz of activity.

This space is open plan. The general atmosphere in there is loud and busy, but the space enjoys loads of natural light and stunning views of the city. She claims that when she is working there her ideas and productivity are at a much higher level compared to when she works in her own office.

According to the designers there is a simple reason for this. The main concepts are: Buzz - conversational noise and commotion - which believe it or not is good. Private offices and expressions of hierarchy are of debatable value. Less spacer per worker may be inevitable for cost-effectiveness, but it can enhance the working environment, not degrade it. Daylight and lots of it, is indispensable. Chance encounters yield creative energy. And mobility is essential.

This isn’t a suddenly exploding trend either, recent research has found that two-thirds of American office space is now configured in some sort of open plan arrangement.

With all its benefits, open plan offices if not designed properly can make workers feel a bit like they are all stuffed into a room (a bit like cattle if you ask me), so how do you avoid this?

According to the experts when you are working in an open plan office, workers become more aware of body language.

Architects sometimes takes clients into previous projects they have done where there is not a private office in sight. In spaces like these there is constant low-level hubbub: people in motion, and gathering into small groups. This leaves many people a little nervous about how their employees would be able to work in such a space.

But architects and designers insists that people adapt.

Open plan offices often have little rooms away from the general office space where people can go to remove themselves from the constant flow of people and ideas. And in terms of body language, most people realise that if they hunker down at their desks most people will pick up that they are busy and do not want to be disturbed.

This leads to increased productivity and personal relationships between workers increase as well, adding to the general well-being of the company and employees.
This however doesn’t work for all companies as some companies needs private offices for people who needs to do tasks individually rather than collaboratively. In such cases private offices with glass walls which still offers privacy without creating a sense of exclusivity works best.

They remain part of a team.

People who work in open plan offices all say that the natural light streaming in makes their work day seem less like a chore and they feel more passionate about their work if they are in constant connection with the rest of the company. They add that this makes them feel like they are a part of the broad success of the company, rather than just a cog in the machine.

The biggest influence on how an open plan office is designed is the company’s culture. If, for example, the company employs people who are on the road most of the time, why assign them a specific desk? Why not design a space where “hot desking” (a space where you take any desk that is available) is the order of the day.

Another option is creating groups of desks, which allows teams to be close to one another while still being part of the bigger team.

A top executive says that “the big benefit is that there’s a whole host of really talented informal leaders in the building, and they have an opportunity to shine and have more of an impact.This has really opened up opportunities for people without formal titles.”

Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” is skeptical of open-office environments — for introverts and extroverts alike, though she says the first group suffers much more amid noise and bustle.

Introverts are naturally more comfortable toiling alone, she says, so they will cope by negotiating time to work at home, or by isolating themselves with noise-canceling headphones — “which is kind of an insane requirement for an office environment, when you think about it,” she says.

Ms. Cain also says humans have a fundamental need to claim and personalize space. “It’s the room of one’s own,” she says. “Your photographs are on the wall. It’s the same reason we have houses. These are emotional safety zones.”

The campus of the Gates Foundation addresses some of these concerns. Foundation executives started with a model that proposed that 70 percent of all offices be of the closed variety. In collaboration with NBBJ (a leading architecture firm), the model evolved to a mix of 60 percent open and 40 percent closed, with a variety of open and closed “retreat” spaces that enable different personalities to find the work environments they need.

The campus occupies 12 acres of prime real estate next to the site of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. It includes two boomerang-shaped buildings dressed in glass and European limestone, and a vast private courtyard with sculptures and water gardens.

Steve McConnell, managing partner at NBBJ, says that transparency is their key quality. Employees who often travel the world according to research, recovers quicker from jet lag with  to daylight cycles. People circulate along perimeter halls with glass curtain walls facing the courtyard; the constant movement animates the entire complex.

Stairwells, for example can be positioned to land at hubs with coffee stations, copy machines and informal furniture groupings, so that employees from disparate departments can enjoy random meetings. All can move freely around the campus, working wherever they want. Installing every one's laptop is with a platform that enables instant-messaging, phone and videoconferencing, and people-finding tools will make things even easier.

Taking all things into account, open plan offices definitely has its advantages but like with every new concept there are still some challenges. The only true thing in all open plan offices that you can count on is that ideas will arise quicker, productivity will increase and employees seem to enjoy their work day more when in constant contact with their colleagues.

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