"The Open vs. Closed Office Debate"

By Christine Barney, CEO
rbb Public Relations

In preparation for the birth of Casa rbb, I thought I’d share some of the facts that support the design principles of our new office environment. The theory is that as offices shift from a place where the focus is on keeping track of things to a forum for exchanging, evaluating and exploiting knowledge, open layouts will replace traditional spaces with entitlement (offices only for senior staff), rigid meeting rooms and an absence of places to think.

So, what's the right balance between open and closed offices? And, what do we mean by open office anyway? Is it a high-paneled cubicle (one cannot see over the panel/screen when seated? Is it a low paneled cubicle (one can see over the panel when seated?' Is it a cluster or 'pod' of low-paneled workstations separated from another pod by higher panels? Is it a shared enclosed office (2-12 people in an enclosed space)? Is it a team-orientated bullpen, with a small group of desks in a completely open area? It is of course, all of the above. Which is why describing a work environment as 'open' serves so little purpose. It is like using 'meat' to describe everything from hot dogs to filet mignon, or 'car' for everything from a mini Cooper to Rolls Royce."

Finding the right balance of open and closed offices requires understanding the purpose of the office, and even more so, the nature of work being done.

The rbb office’s primary (not only) value is as a place for face-to-face interaction: a place to meet co-workers and managers, to inspire, to coach, be motivated, share information, debate goals and objectives, socialize, make friends, and so on. It is as much of a social setting as it is a refuge or technical information center.

So how do different forms of office design, from closed offices to a variety of forms of open plan offices, affect communication and interaction? More importantly, how does it affect things like decision speed, organizational learning and employee job satisfaction and commitment? Research undertaken by the International Workplace Studies program at Cornell University," Offices that Work" by Franklin Becker PhD and William Sims PhD, has found:

  1. The more open, the 'open plan' office environment, the more conducive it is to overall work effectiveness, when communication and interaction are critical elements of the work process.

  2. Few would argue that most employees need time to think, concentrate and reflect, as well as communicate, share information and interact socially. The Holy Grail is finding the right balance. What is surprising about the data is that the more open type office environment, what we are calling team-orientated bullpens and pods, as well as shared closed offices, may come closer to achieving this balance than either closed offices or high-paneled cubicles.

    1. Studies show that while closed offices can provide visual separation, they are no guarantee of audio privacy. In fact, they may provide a false sense of security when people should instead be aware that they can easily be overhead.

    2. The Buffalo Organization for Social and technological Innovation found that people slightly prefer shared space above other types of work environment. Open offices almost always include alternative spaces that are more private than an individual’s workstation -- from casual seating areas to fully enclosed meeting rooms. In effect, people need not one workplace, but several, each offering different gradations of privacy to match their needs at any given time.

  3. While communication occurs in closed offices, the pace, frequency and nature of that communication is significantly different from what occurs in more open settings.
    1. Conference calls, emails and scheduled meetings are viewed by those in closed offices as providing sufficient communication. People in closed office often referred to "frequent" communication meaning interactions several times a week often in a scheduled meeting. For those in an open workstation environment, "frequent communication" and interaction meant literally dozens of quite short communications throughout the day.

    2. The more open the environment, the more frequent the communication and the shorter the duration. Rather than being viewed as interruptions, these short, frequent interactions provided very fast feedback and response time, allowing work to move forward overall.

  4. Open team-orientated environments with their unobstructed visibility from a seated position, provide useful clues that govern interaction and reduce unwanted interruptions.
    1. a) Even though you get distractions when you are in an open area, you can also ask questions very quickly. And you aren't as tentative to go over and ask somebody a question. By the same token you can see if they are on an important call and not bother them. If someone has an office and the door is closed you have to wonder if you should knock and if you are disturbing them.

    2. b) Even with open-door policies – closed doors have a negative effect. Employees rated a manager who believed his door was open 95% of the time as having the door closed 95% of the time.

  5. In organizations where teamwork and collaboration are critical, socializing is the glue that binds a team together. The environment affects the relationships between managers and their teams. Managers’ interactions with teams, if manager is in a closed or high cubicle is about 82% based on work product and 5% non-work product ; manager's interaction with teams in an open workstation environment is 64% work product-based and 24% non-work product. So that means you won’t have to merchandise your efforts so much to make sure your skills are being noticed.

The above has excerpts from "Offices that Work" by Franklin Becker PhD and William Sims PhD: Cornell University: International Workplace Studies Program