Are open plan offices counter productive?

Back in November 2013 the Angel Offices team created a write-up to help you decide whether you should go open plan with your office design. Now the debate is back on the table.

Open plan offices are supposed to encourage your team to collaborate more, and can help you squeeze more workers into the floor space you have available to you. Some are even meant to improve your employees’ health, thanks to specially designed furniture and features such as standing desks (yes, that really is a thing).

Open plan spaces have their downside: they can be noisy, making things difficult for your employees to concentrate. Research also suggests open plan environments can be stressful and ineffective. This hasn’t, however, affected their popularity – around 70% of US companies use an open plan layout for their workspace.

Office furniture manufacturer Steelcase have a solution: the Brody. This is a sort of pod that was initially conceived for students having observed how they work within a library. Most students enter the library and locate a seat with their back to the wall, isolating themselves as they began work. Steelcase’s design recreates this feeling, and includes a reclining seat and movable desk with enclosed back and sides to create a feeling of privacy. 

Although the pod was created for students, it is immediately obvious that the design could be hugely beneficial for the workplace too. Designer Director Markus McKenna explains:

“We’ve been hearing a growing voice that our customers want more of these. … It was about halfway through the project that we thought maybe we could address both markets with the same product.”

The idea is not to replace regular desks but to create a space that people can escape for an hour or two. Steelcase carried out their own internal research to help identify a need for the product which showed an increase of 16 percent in the number of people who say they can’t concentrate at their desk, since 2008 – and privacy was consistently cited as the top workplace issue. Along the same lines as their pod, the company also launched a range of “introvert” room designs last year. These are based around a number of design principles, as follows:

  • Permission to be alone: the freedom to focus and innovate without interruption from an otherwise highly stimulating workplace.
  • User control over environment: the ability to control elements of the workspace.
  • Sensory balance: the ability to control sensory stimulation, often in the form of calming, more intimate influences.
  • Psychological safety: having the choice of places to be unseen and unable to see others.


Steelcase aren’t the only company looking to solve the issues of the bustling open plan office space. Furniture creator Herman Miller has also been researching employers’ attitudes to noise in the workplace and have found that the most progressive employers intend to create a minimum of five sound-proof work spaces for every 100 work stations in their office. They have also registered an increased interest in the design of quiet car-like spaces within the office that are intended for concentrated work.

Knoll have similarly seen success with the promotion of their “refuge rooms” and other activity spaces designed to help workers concentrate, which are kitted out with video displays for connecting devices. Their strategy to aggressively market the rooms was borne partly from demand, and partly from their designers’ recognition that people increasingly miss their privacy.

However, even with the best design principles in mind and creative solutions to reduce the problems of open plan offices, no space will ever be distraction free. Employees will always face the challenges of a constant stream of emails, texts, phone calls and twitter updates, aggravated by the rise in popularity of social media and its integration into modern business practices. Author of the book Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace Nikil Saval, explains:

“There’s just so many things that contribute to distraction in the workplace, and furniture solutions are just one small part of it.”

So does this change the arguments for and against open plan? Open plan spaces are essential for collaboration and team work but sometimes employees need to focus. This suggests a move towards hybrid space design, where open plan spaces and quiet focus areas are combined to create the right environment for each employee, whatever the task in hand. Smart solutions like Steelcase’s pod help employers create the right balance.

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