Is open plan a bad thing?

Picture thanks to Metropolis Magazine

According to the Harvard Business Review, it is easier to focus in a coffee shop than in an open-plan office. This is yet another attack on a style of working that has been very much in vogue. Walls have been ripped down and we have all been expected to work with colleagues as far as the eye can see. Individual office are becoming a rare breed and the preserve of the upper echelons of an organisation.

The article goes on to say that people are more creative with some background noise and so an open plan space should be beneficial yet workers struggle to get things done. They get sucked into neighbouring conversations and get distracted by office politics. Open plan offices are not conducive to getting work done.

Reading the article, it is a clear cut case. Open plan is bad and they should be banished to the rubbish bins of office design. We would be better off working in a coffee shop. That may indeed be true yet we have fallen into the trap laid by the author. The piece gives the clear impression that work is about focus and concentration when this is only part of the picture.

A lot of work requires interaction, engagement and social gossip. Creativity occurs more when people come together to exchange and develop ideas. In this case open plan offices and coffee shops would be ideal and single use or less populated offices would be a bad thing.

This is the point and the trap we all fall into. Work is not one thing. It is multi-faceted. In some cases you need to concentrate and in some cases you need to cooperate. Sometimes you need to be with your team and at others you need to be with your customers. Sometimes you are best on your own

We need to obsess much less on the place in which we work and focus on the type of work we do. The building should meet the needs of the business and not the other way around. Open plan offices in themselves are not bad, only appropriate for certain types of activity. The notion that we should all go to the same place every day, wherever we are doing is outdated and inefficient.

We need to go and work where we can add most value.

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