Out in the open

Open-plan offices may be great for teamwork and collaboration, but they can let you down when it comes to providing privacy and space for sustained concentration. Jeremy Myerson looks at a range of measures that can be taken to improve our workplaces – and our wellbeing in the office and beyond to boot

Offices have advanced enormously over the past 40 years in terms of their design, layout, environmental controls, furniture, technology, ambience and sociability. The workplaces we occupy today present an all-round improvement on the time-and-motion paper factories of the past.

But in one key area it could be argued that we are doing worse today than we were in, say, 1970. Provision of space for privacy and concentration has suffered in the headlong rush to redesign the office as a social landscape for teamwork and collaboration.

The more the working world has embraced the opportunities of the knowledge economy, the more the needs of the group have been promoted at the expense of the individual – and the harder it has become to do solo, private work in open-plan offices that are noisy, disruptive and cannot guarantee confidentiality.

The office has always been required to balance the competing claims of concentration and collaboration. Designers have tried many different ways to provide a mix of ’caves’ (for private work) and ’commons’ (for teamwork). Roll back the decades and you will see that office designers actually catered rather well for concentration and privacy by placing small rooms for individuals off long corridors.

Such arrangements were not, however, conducive to achieving social cohesion or a strong corporate culture. And as the drive towards greater efficiencies, team innovation and a multidisciplinary approach took hold in business, so the momentum to break down walls and herd everyone into large open-plan offices with a range of social amenities became irresistible. Clearly, in recent times, collaboration has improved – but at the cost of being able to get your head down and concentrate.

The biggest losers in this pendulum swing are those premium knowledge workers inside organisations who are paid to think rather than just attend brainstorms. These people are highly qualified and highly experienced and currently many of them are being required to climb inside a small ’privacy’ cabin or tent, or take work home, if they want to write a long report or analyse complex data.

My own research among this group, conducted with psychologist Alma Erlich and social anthropologist Jo-Anne Bichard, revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. Senior employees felt they were constantly ’on parade’ and under surveillance in an open-plan space. Constant noise and lack of confidentiality adversely affected their ability to get important things done, and also their health and wellbeing. There was conflict with facilities managers who argue that less privileged and more open and transparent space plans are more democratic and cost-effective, and who remain suspicious of confidential work in closed-off space as a misuse of company time.

Clearly, nobody wants to return to the bad old days of long corridors and closed doors, so there should be new ways to design for privacy and concentration at work. Indeed, it should be given a much higher priority given the growing emphasis on new intellectual capital in the workplace and current skills shortages and demographic shifts in the workforce.

But where can a new design agenda start to take shape? I’m not convinced that privacy spaces need to be bricked off from the main office or confined to tiny caves or cabins. With more imagination and foresight, companies could screen off general areas of the open-plan space, with hanging fabrics and plants, and designate special ’privacy zones’ with strict protocols on noise, disruption and use of mobile phones, as in a public library. Sound transformation technologies could be integrated into desktop systems and general levels of office lighting reduced so that more intimate task lighting for the individual predominates in those spaces for concentration.

There is a great deal we can do. As a pointer to the future, Tim Parsons, then a Royal College of Art researcher, undertook a study some years ago in the college’s Helen Hamlyn Centre entitled Headspace: Privacy in Open Plan Offices. Through a series of observations in bustling media offices, he discovered that territorial and physical elements to aid concentration and privacy tend to be ineffective and irrelevant if the mind is unsettled and unfocused on the job in hand. So he created a series of design experiments to give people greater psychological privacy without the need to build walls and create private enclaves.

These took the form of low-tech cultural artefacts placed around the individual workstation in an open-plan arrangement to suggest the idea of greater privacy without actually giving workers any more personal space. They included facsimile doormats, mailboxes and ’umbrella chairs’ featuring an umbrella in the backrest that could be opened to provide an acoustic shield and act as a sign saying ’do not disturb’.

Their effect was to send signals to co-workers to respect the privacy of the individual and avoid interrupting them. We could do worse than revisit such design strategies to ensure that our open-plan office environments don’t drive the brightest thinkers in business to total distraction.

Jeremy Myerson is director and chairman of the Helen Hamlyn Centre, Royal College of Art. His latest book on office design, New Demographics New Workspace, is published by Gower

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