29 July 2013

What conditions do you need in order to work effectively?

I had a call recently from a concerned member of the public. He’d been reading some of my recent NZ Herald articles (and reader comments) about how people struggle to work well in crowded open plan offices. He wanted me to know that the NZ Government is actively working to reduce floor space per person. (I’ve not checked, but suspect that New Zealand is not the only government beating this particular drum.)

On the surface saving space sounds like a worthy aim but over recent years I’ve heard many horror stories from government employees who struggle with squashed and inefficient working conditions, including many in very modern Green Star-rated buildings.

So I went digging. Sure enough, the Property Management Centre of Expertise, a division of the Ministry of Social Development, has been tasked with reducing wasted office space. They’re ‘working towards an occupancy goal of 12-16 m2 [about 130 – 172 sq. ft] per full-time employee’. http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/about-msd/our-structure/pmcoe/guidelines-overview.html

I can totally support their aim to ‘provide productive, flexible, cost-effective workspaces’ and I’d be the first to agree that we want our tax money used wisely. And the various referenced documents, including a Cost Benefit Analysis Tool, do mention consideration of different working styles. However, since government workers in their droves are telling me they’re finding it harder and harder to work effectively, I wonder just how much the far bigger ongoing costs of wages, sick leave and lost productivity are really considered.

Problem is, ‘productive’ means different things to different people. Many people, but especially introverts – and they’re close to 50% of the workforce- struggle to function effectively when they’re pushed into open-plan spaces. Such layout only works well with very careful design and plenty of alternatives for different purposes and working styles.

Around the same time I heard from the man mentioned at the beginning of this article, a very experienced architect friend informed me that many architects are also concerned about these trends.

It’s interesting to observe how trends develop. Get enough people in positions of influence or authority singing from the same hymn book and something that starts out just being a good idea in some circumstances becomes a ground swell of common practice. (Malcolm Gladwell talks about the psychology of trends in ‘The Tipping Point’.)

So, I’ve decided it’s time to do something to create our own Tipping Point and let’s see if we can change this trend. Let’s bring back common-sense office layout so people don’t have to come in early or stay late to get the ‘real’ work done.

To do this effectively and in a thoughtful and well-balanced way, we need your help. We want to gather case studies so we can help architects, office layout designers, CEOs, CFOs, property and business managers – many who have been influenced by these modern trends – to understand the full implications of their office layout decisions.

If you’ve got a story to tell; before and after examples; data that can quantify lost or improved productivity; you’re interested to help spread the word; you’re a planner or architect with information I should know – anything that will help us improve people’s productivity and working conditions – please share it.

Add your comments below so we can build a shared resource of information.


If you haven’t heard me talk about this topic before, check the following references and previous blog entries where I discussed author Susan Cain’s observations on the diminishing allocation of space – and the consequent reduction in productivity.

Herald Online:

Open Plan Trend Has Gone Too Far

How often are the workers consulted on efficient office layout?

Open plan offices kill productivity

Here’s to People Power – and commonsense office layout.

3 thoughts on “What conditions do you need in order to work effectively?”

  1. Sue says:

    Thanks for asking the question re open plan offices…its hideous as people shout from one end of the room to the other and are not courteous in where they walk or talk around the open plan desks. The Managers have offices with doors that they can close (therefore are oblivious) and allow staff to gather around outside waiting for them which then creates its own distractions for others working nearby. The other issue is speaker phones and people who broadcast their conversations loudly. I believe open plan officing areas should be divided into grouping by departments where you are sharing useful information and giving a bit more team feel to the environment. I believe open plan leads to more mistakes and wasted time due to constant distractions.

  2. Katie says:

    There are now 14 people in our open office. The time it takes me to complete my weekly paperwork in the office: 5 hours. The time it takes me at home:1.3 hours.
    The maximum time I can work in the office without an interruption: 3 minutes. At home, easily 60 minutes.
    Most common interruptions are needing to phone clients, so everybody gets disturbed, work questions, gossip, somebody moving between spaces, the person behind me is so close, we knock each other hen we move the wrong way, somebody arriving, leaving or getting coffee. We all have headphones so we can work quietly.
    I often hide at a cafe with free wireless so I can work without interruption. And this is an improvement over my last office. Mostly because my time is more flexible so I can work around it.

  3. John says:

    I have to feed back an alternative (better) experience. I work in a large (6000 seat) open plan office campus with an activity based working layout, which provides a whole range of different areas to work in, from normal 120 degree workstations to square-ish cubicles to project desks, along with various collaboration / break out areas. The feeling of space is there, even though the average space per person is actually 10-12 sq m. White noise from ceiling speakers along with carpet dissipates any noises travelling too far across the large floor plates, and anyone needing to take a call can use small 2 person offices which are open to everyone to use ad hoc, but with a maximum 2 hour occupation rule. If I need peace and quiet I can book a meeting room, or retire to a collaboration area away from the main workstation areas, or go to another floor for similar break out areas. I’m also fortunate enough to have another option – working outside the office, with remote access back to office systems – and flexible working is encouraged, again in line with one’s activity. There are in fact workstations for only circa 80% of the total number of staff, and yet the buildings are never full. I think a big part of what I perceive as a successful open plan office design is that no managers have an office, they use the same workstations as everyone else, and no one can lay claim to a particular desk. That sends a very empowering message to all employees, including the managers themselves. IMHO with the right design, open plan offices can work, but they really do need that design effort, and the right fitout, furniture and materials, plus the right technology to enable people to work wherever fits their activity. In smaller offices, it’s harder to provide different working areas (workstations versus break-out areas versus meeting rooms), and it does depend on the kind of work you’re doing, so it would be great to hear from others who have seen successful open plan designs on a smaller scale. Otherwise I can totally understand a smaller open plan office causing issues around noise levels and other distractions. Hope this helps

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