Dream office: Why we hate the open-plan office

Dream office: Why we hate the open-plan office

Does it matter if we put our talented, creative people to work in a rabbit warren that has limited natural light, cold drafts in winter and hotspots in summer?

Instinctively, we know that it does. We know a big office with a door, a view and a solid wood desk makes us feel valued (even if we never actually sit in it to do our work). We realise that crowding people too closely together contributes to them feeling stressed, out of control and unimportant.

What we do not know is how much it matters. If our talented staff are in a pretty good office, with fairly good lighting, reasonable space and not too much fuss about who goes where, would upgrading the design of their workspace return an improvement in productivity that would justify the expense? Does it matter if we have plants, art and views? Should we consult with staff about the look and design of the place they come to work, or are we provoking conflict, unrest and dissatisfaction?

Australia has a well-documented labour productivity problem. “Labour productivity for the Australian economy as a whole grew at an average annual rate of 1.5 per cent over the ten years to 2009/10 … compared with 2.1 per cent per annum over the 10 years to 1999/2000 …” according to a report by the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Managers and leaders are often blamed for this fall (Management Matters). However, in this series of articles, LeadingCompany explores the role our office environment has to play in improving our productivity results.

A good office design will not overcome the impact of poor leadership. But taking seriously the idea of desk placement, privacy, technology and personalisation can help leaders to think through the challenges of their task in a fresh way.

One leader who subscribes to such notions is Tim Reed, the CEO of accounting software company, MYOB. His company is currently upgrading its offices, starting with Sydney last November and Melbourne in the coming months. “That has really enabled us to create a workspace consistent with our values and our brand,” Reed says, referring to the process of arriving at the office plan. “It’s really helped us rethink the way in which people collaborate, ensuring we get the tools and technologies that enable people to work and help them enjoy working here.”

So let’s start with something that really gets the blood boiling.

The open-plan office

Do you understand why you hate your open-plan office?

Steve Coster does.  Coster is a principal at Hassell, one of Australia’s most successful architecture firms. He is the leader of the workplace design practice. “My job is to help companies get the most value from their work environment,” he tells LeadingCompany. “There are very effective open-plan offices and very ineffective ones. The people who hate open plan have only experienced bad open plan.”

Two big changes helped spawn open-plan office design in the sixties and seventies. One was the birth of mass produced desks and partitions – work stations – and the other was the escalating cost of real estate.


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